Gallic leaders fight over right to be Blair

The Labour leader's victory has won him fans and imitators across Europe - in rival parties
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Can you win the French lottery with a used British ticket?

As the French election campaign formally got under way yesterday, the principal topic of debate was the British election.

Both of the main French political families, the left and the centre-right, are claiming that they have chosen the same political numbers as Tony Blair: the free market with a kinder, gentler face.

The French Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, was also drawing comfort from new polls which suggest a substantial reduction in the early lead of the centre-right coalition now in government. On present indications, the French parliamentary election, to be fought over two rounds on 25 May and 1 June, is too close to call.

Before the British election, Mr Jospin was being teased by his opponents for not being Mr Blair. There had been no cultural revolution for French socialists, they said. The party's social and economic proposals, cuts in working hours and make-work schemes for the young, were a throwback to the Seventies.

The immensity of Mr Blair's win has, however, sown doubt in the mind of the centre-right, as if left-wing election victories were, after all, a kind of rabies which might enter France through the Channel Tunnel.

Olivier Dassault, of the aircraft-making family and the Gaullist RPR party, said yesterday that all parallels were misleading: Britain was rejecting 18 years of Thatcherism; France was still recovering from 14 years of Mitterrandism.

Mr Jospin, who had formerly played down the comparisons, now claims to be the most "Blairiste" candidate in the race. Like Blair, he says, he wants to increase education and health spending; like Blair, he is cautious about the single currency; like Blair he wants to adapt to global challenges without rejecting the European social and welfarist model.

Rubbish, say the centre-right, we are the real Blairists. Alain Madelin, a right-wing former minister, says he can see nothing in the Blair programme that he would not happily adopt.

The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, says "Blairisme" is fine because, unlike Jospinisme, it has "completely abandoned socialism".

The British election may have captivated the French politicians, but it is far from clear that Tony Blair - or anything else - has fired the imagination of the French electorate. According to one poll, more than 50 per cent of voters have little interest in the campaign.

To try to explode the lethargic mood, the centre-right is to wheel out its secret weapon sooner than expected. President Jacques Chirac will probably give a television address, or an interview, tomorrow - the second anniversary of his election to a seven-year term as president. He is expected to complain that a victory for the left would deposit him in five years of muddled left-right co-habitation, the opposite of the clear mandate for change given by the British poll.

Anticipating this tactic, the centre-left newspaper, Liberation, yesterday argued the opposite. If Blairism is a synthesis of free-markets and social conscience, the newspaper argued, the best way to import it into France would be through the election of a socialist prime minister and a conservative president.