Honest Jospin struggles to distance himself from the past

French election/ the outsider
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The Independent Online
THE bustling bars and brasseries of Dijon testify to Burgundy's importance as a centre of France's food and wine business, and also to the elegant and placid character of a town that usually seems untroubled by the social and ethnic tensions afflicting larger French cities, writes Tony Barber.

Usually but not always. Last Tuesday afternoon, two boys entered a small food shop near the 13th-century church of Notre-Dame, in the medieval heart of Dijon, and asked the assistant for money. She exploded in rage, drove the boys out, turned to a customer and said: "You see? Shameless Yugoslavs begging and stealing everywhere! Chirac, Jospin, the left, the right, what do they propose to do about it?"

Her sense that there is little to choose between politicians of all stripes points to one of Lionel Jospin's biggest difficulties as he tries to pull off the greatest upset of any of the Fifth Republic's seven presidential elections. If he is to win today, Mr Jospin must do well in places such as Dijon, the attractive, prosperous capital of Burgundy, which lies a long way from the socialist strongholds of south-western France.

To borrow a phrase, Mr Jospin needs to have persuaded voters that there is "clear water" not only between himself and Jacques Chirac, his Gaullist rival, but between himself and prominent leftist colleagues such as Pierre Mauroy, Laurent Fabius and Michel Rocard, the so-called "socialist elephants" whom millions of voters associate with the crumbling monarchical presidency of Franois Mitterrand.

After the 23 April first round, Mr Jospin took to calling himself "the president of real change" and a would-be "citizen president", slogans designed to distinguish his campaign at once from Mr Chirac's message of conservative reform and from the ceremonial socialism that marked Mr Mitterrand's final years in office. To some degree, however, Mr Jospin's record as education minister in 1988-1993, and as Socialist Party leader for seven years before that, inevitably brands him as a man of the Mitterrand era.

Praised across the political spectrum as a decent, intelligent and modest man, Mr Jospin may suffer from the perception of some uncommitted voters that he is "a bit too light" to fill the shoes of previous presidents such as Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and even Mr Mitterrand himself. One former centre-right prime minister, Raymond Barre, said that "as a symbol of honesty, the left couldn't have chosen a better candidate", but added that he would still vote for Mr Chirac because France needed a change after 14 years of socialism in the Elyse. In Tuesday's televised debate, it was striking that Mr Jospin never once used the term "socialism" to describe his political beliefs. In his summing-up remarks, he did quote Lord Byron, but that seemed merely to add to viewers' confusion.

A Jospin victory would certainly put the cat among the French political pigeons. Faced with the enormous conservative majority in parliament elected in 1993, Mr Jospin would have to dissolve the National Assembly in the hope of bringing the left back to power in the legislature.

However, political analysts are virtually unanimous that the left remains too unpopular to regain its majority. For the third time since 1986, therefore, France would be ruled by a president of the left and a legislature of the right. "What that means is that the only thing that ever gets done is an anti-smoking law that everyone ignores," said one sceptical Parisian.

On the surface, the electoral arithmetic looks bad for Mr Jospin. Though he came top in the first round, city after city produced overall majorities for the right - if the votes of the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, are added to those of Mr Chirac, Edouard Balladur and Philippe de Villiers. In Dijon, these three candidates scored 45.2 per cent against a combined total for the left of 40.6 per cent, making Mr Le Pen's 14 per cent potentially the key swing vote.

Election analysts calculate that, to capture the Elyse, Mr Jospin needs to restrict Mr Chirac to half the 15 per cent of the national vote that went to Mr Le Pen on 23 April. He also needs to gain a majority among voters who abstained in the first round but will cast ballots today. These are voters with no particular loyalty to any political party, but they are expected to make up as much as 10 per cent of the total electorate.

According to one poll analyst, Eric Dupin, if these factors worked in Mr Jospin's favour he would win by 51.5 to 48.5 per cent. However, he added: "A score of 46-47 per cent for Jospin would be very honourable."

Mr Jospin said last week he cared little for such juggling of figures. "Put aside the arithmetic," he told thousands of supporters at a rally in a Paris sports stadium last Wednesday night. "Even if it's difficult, I am convinced that it's possible."