Election contenders to debate on TV

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in Paris

The two remaining candidates in the French presidential election, the Socialist Lionel Jospin and the Gaullist Jacques Chirac, will take part in a televised debate on 2 May, five days before the run-off ballot.

Mr Jospin said he hoped to use the debate to "demystify" the "pseudo- social discourse" of Mr Chirac, a reference to the right-winger's campaign focus on social issues. A senior official in Mr Chirac's RPR party, the National Assembly Speaker Philippe Sguin, warned that "if we [in the party] do not do what we have to do for Jacques Chirac, victory for Lionel Jospin is quite possible".

As the two men faced up to their contest, the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen stepped into the fray yesterday, claiming to hold the balance between left and right. As the price for his support, Mr Le Pen is thought to want not only a tougher line on immigration and security but a return to some form of proportional representation in national elections.

He warned in a radio interview that Mr Chirac could not take the National Front's 15 per cent for granted and described Mr Jospin as a "decent man", whose reputation for "incorruptibility" was "undoubtedly well deserved". After topping the poll on Sunday, the pundits are asking whether Mr Jospin could possibly win the second round of the election on 7 May. The bare arithmetic of the left-right duel looks unpromising.

The breakdown of votes cast in the first round gives a straight 60-40 majority to the combined right-wing parties, even if Mr Jospin were able to garner all the votes of the other candidates on the left - the Communist, the Trotskyite and the Green. The pollsters, down but not out after their humiliation on Sunday, predict that Mr Chirac will win by 57 per cent to 43, based on a slight increase in the left-wing turn-out and a slightly higher abstention rate on the right.

There were signs yesterday, however, that any calculations derived from the straight left-right figures of the first round could be misleading. In particular, Mr Jospin could receive fewer of the first round left-wing votes than might be predicted, but more of the right-wing votes.

First, there is the abstention rate. The relatively high votes for the minor candidates on Sunday are seen primarily as protest votes. How many of these protest voters will turn out in the second round? The Socialist Party, on the other hand, cheered by Mr Jospin's performance in the first round, could well mobilise impressive support and so recoup some of its traditional voters who either did not vote on Sunday, or voted for Mr Chirac.

On the right, too, the sums are not clear-cut. The biggest slice of the vote, Mr Balladur's 18.54 per cent, may not be entirely safe for Mr Chirac. The Balladur vote is bound to have contained a proportion of voters who are on the right but cannot stomach Mr Chirac. The question is whether they will vote at all in the second round and, if they do, whether their anti-Chirac sentiment will be stronger than their dislike of the left.

The second largest slice of the vote is the unprecedented 15.07 per cent that went to the National Front, plus the almost 5 per cent that went to Philippe de Villiers. Some of the extreme right vote could go to Mr Jospin.

Concern about France's "social crisis" could help Mr Jospin. Mr Chirac tried hard to claim this field but the social breakdown of his vote suggests he was not entirely successful.