Polls predict a Chirac victory

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FRENCH voters today elect a successor to President Franois Mitterrand, the Socialist head of state who is expected to step down on Wednesday, the 14th anniversary of his assumption of power. When he departs the Elyse Palace he will have been France's longest-serving head of state since Napoleon III.

Last-minute polls, banned from publication in France but leaked to foreign news organisations, predicted a narrow victory for Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist Mayor of Paris, over Lionel Jospin, the Socialist former education minister. Six surveys indicated that Mr Jospin, the surprise winner in the 23 April first round, had closed the gap on Mr Chirac in the last week of campaigning but would still lose. They predicted he would get about 48 per cent of the vote to Mr Chirac's 52 per cent.

A Jospin victory cannot be entirely ruled out. Polls suggest that about 10 per cent of voters have not yet made up their minds.

The overwhelming impression has been that nothing fundamental separates Mr Chirac from Mr Jospin in policy terms. Mr Chirac is no more a conservative ideologue than Mr Jospin is a dogmatic socialist.

Strength of character and the ability to represent the country, embody French values and provide effective leadership in the event of a national crisis are therefore the sort of factors that will weigh heavily on the voters' choice today. In this respect Mr Jospin lacks the experience of Mr Chirac, who has already served twice as prime minister.

Chirac's plans, page 13