Who's the prettiest candidate of all?

Image is all-important in the French presidential elections - and the tame media play their part
Outside the schools and town halls that will serve as polling stations the hoardings are in place and the campaign posters of the nine candidates adorn them. Here is the front-runner Jacques Chirac, twice losing presidential candidate, in backlit close-up, his face wearing a kinder, gentler expression than is usually associated with his hyperactive personality, proclaiming a France for everybody.

Prime Minister and fellow Gaullist Edouard Balladur (unsmiling, three- button suit, his concession to informality a hand in a trouser pocket) walks towards the camera and invites the voter to believe in France. The mouth of the Socialist candidate Lionel "a clear vote for a just France" Jospin is caught in a rictus, half-smile, half-leer.

Communist candidate Robert Hue is a genial goblin, his face fringed with a 19th-century teacher's beard, his chaotic teeth contrasting with the gleaming snarl of the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's upper set. The slogans are usually a single phrase; but Trotskyist candidate Arlette Laguiller, running for president for the fourth time, prints several hundred words of her manifesto on her posters.

In this election, the French are electing a man or woman, not a party, and image is all-important. A famous campaign poster showing Francois Mitterrand deep in the heart of the French countryside (a church spire distantly visible) and announcing his "tranquil force" is still remembered as a major factor in his victory.

There are similarities with British elections: the photo opportunities, the manipulation of the willing media. Candidates' rallies are held at 7pm - in halls, stadiums or giant tents - in time for the soundbite to make the evening news programmes. Chirac in particular is a master of the single-theme rally at which showbiz celebs or the young swoon over their candidate. Then there are grim election broadcasts in which the candidates have from two to 15 minutes to make their pitch.

But there are differences. Door-to-door canvassing is not a French tradition, though in street markets and other public places, activists hand out leaflets. The candidates' big meetings are usually open to all-comers and are not all-ticket affairs, though predictably, they are packed with their supporters.

Few voters will see their candidates in the flesh, which is why television is so important. Nor will they question them; there is no equivalent of Election Call here. The role of public interrogator is taken up by journalists, and, with a few exceptions, they fail pitifully to fulfil it.

Those who find the terrier-like insistence of a Humphrys or a Paxman offensive should see the alternative: the failure to question Balladur about a well-publicised and providential piece of hitchhiking at a time when he was seeking to shed his aloof and stuffy image; or the murky circumstances under which Chirac, mayor of Paris, has the private use of a cheap luxury flat owned by a company partly controlled by the Paris public housing authority. Le Pen is allowed to deny his well-documented racist and anti- Semitic views while his interlocutor compliments him on his new statesmanlike persona. His denials of the violent conduct of some of his supporters go unchallenged.

Television has not been kind to Jospin, exposing him as rather schoolmasterly and austere. Balladur, trailing in second or third place, and by no means certain of making it to the second and decisive round, thinks he does well on television, and has been challenging Chirac to a televised debate. Chirac, who knows he appears tense and ill at ease, has understandably declined.

The impact of the press is limited, largely because the papers most read by the French are local publications such as Ouest France or L'Est Rpublicain, which may opt editorially for a candidate at the end of the campaign but generally avoid the crude partisanship that characterises much British political reporting.

The exception to the ambient dreariness of the coverage is the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchan, whose revelations at the start of the campaign about Balladur's personal financial arrangements were among the factors that led to the decline in his support. Page two, with its snippets of political gossip, is indispensable to anyone wishing to know what is really going on in French politics.

In this, the last week, a curious silence falls. Publication of opinion polls is banned in the immediate run-up to the first round of voting. This does not, of course, mean that they are not taken and circulated privately and indeed known to large numbers of influential people. If share prices on the Bourse suddenly collapse, you may assume someone somewhere knows, or thinks they know, something the public does not.

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