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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 18:57 GMT 19:57 UK
Record field fights French election
French National Assembly
More than 8,600 candidates are chasing 577 seats
The French general election campaign has officially kicked off, with initial opinion polls suggesting that a right-wing coalition, boosted by Jacques Chirac's presidential victory, has a narrow lead over the left.

Jacques Chirac
Chirac is desperate for a right-wing majority
Mr Chirac is desperate to secure a right-wing majority in parliament, to end the "cohabitation" between left and right which blighted his previous term in office.

But despite several deals aiming to consolidate the number of candidates, the June elections are set to be the most crowded in French history.

Some 8,633 candidates are running in the 577 constituencies - an average of 15 candidates per seat. In Paris, the average is 22 candidates for each of the 21 seats.

The country was shaken last month by the defeat of the former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections, a result blamed partly on the division of the left-wing vote among a variety of candidates.

Francois Bayrou
Francois Bayrou is holding out against right-wing deal
Keen to prevent another fractured vote, key parties on the left and right have agreed to work together in some constituencies to try to reduce the electoral chances of the National Front.

On the left, the Socialists, Greens, Communists and the small Radical Left Party will work together.

On the right, three parties - Mr Chirac's RPR, the Liberal Democracy party, and the Union for French Democracy (UDF) have joined to form the Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP).

Correspondents say that the number of candidates standing and the complicated two-round polling system means that while initial polls may marginally favour the UMP, it is impossible to predict which way the vote will go.

Deja-vu

Both the left and right-wing groupings could lose votes to extremist candidates, as occurred in the presidential elections, as well as to moderate politicians who have refused to join forces.

Mr Le Pen, who scored 17% in the first round of the presidential polls, is putting up candidates from his National Front for 563 seats. The far-right National Republican Movement is running in all 577 constituencies.

This could bite into support for the UMP, analysts say. More than two million votes are thought to have been lost from the centre-right to the far-right over the past few years - a trend Mr Chirac hopes to curb by concentrating on law-and-order - a favourite far-right focus.

The former leader of the French Socialists, Lionel Jospin
Jospin's defeat to Le Pen shocked France
The UMP may also suffer as a result of a decision by UDF leader Francois Bayrou to field his own candidates in some constituencies, potentially splitting the centre-right vote. Around 150 rival UDF candidates will stand - even though other members of his party will be standing for the UMP itself.

Analysts say this could threaten the UMP's chances of success in at least 100 constituencies.

Any candidate with more than 12.5% in the first round of voting on 9 June enters the second round on 16 June.

Sympathy vote

The left-wing coalition, meanwhile, faces competition from the hard-left Workers' Struggle and the Revolutionary Communist League, which together garnered 10% in the presidential vote.

It could also lose out to the Republican Pole party of former Socialist minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement.

The Socialists' deal with their former partners in government, the Greens, the Communist Party, and the Radical Left Party, so far covers 170 constituencies, less than a third of the total number.

In 34 constituencies only one candidate will stand on behalf of all four parties. In the other 136, deals reducing the number of candidates have been done.

If the left is successful in June's poll, it will herald another period of cohabitation - a system viewed as unproductive by many French voters.

The UMP hopes this dissatisfaction with cohabitation will persuade them to choose a parliament dominated by Mr Chirac's supporters.

The left, however, believes that widespread anger at the result of April's presidential polls, where millions felt forced to throw their weight behind Mr Chirac simply to thwart Mr Le Pen, will have rallied their supporters.


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17 May 02 | Europe
16 May 02 | Europe
22 Apr 02 | Europe
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