Voters look left and right for their next president

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Paris - Jacques Chirac's campaign slogan, ``La France pour tous'' (France for everyone), seduced the media, the pundits and the pollsters, but not the French electorate. The strongest message to come from Sunday's poll was the extent of social and regional division in France.

The fractures Mr Chirac and all the other candidates had been talking about in their campaign speeches proved real enough. The voters just did not believe that any one of the nine before them had the solution, and they let the fractures show.

The French were not apathetic: almost 80 per cent of them turned out to vote despite school holidays and bad weather; and lively discussions of the election could be heard in streets and cafes across the country in the weeks before polling day. There was just no consensus about the next president.

The vote was more dispersed than in any previous presidential election. Mr Jospin topped the poll with less than 25 per cent of votes cast - a smaller proportion than any first-round leader in the past.

Mr Chirac, though still the likely eventual winner, took only 20 per cent of votes - no one has ever been elected president with less than 25 per cent of the first-round vote. And the candidates referred to dismissively through the campaign as the ``small'' or ``minor'' candidates between them took almost 40 per cent, the most yet.

In appearing to show their disillusionment with established politics and politicians in this way, French voters conformed to a trend that has become marked in Western democracies: a general lack of confidence among voters that politicians really have the power to solve people's day-to-day problems. Yet the strength and complexity of the right-wing vote on Sunday seems peculiarly French.

While the vote on the left was relatively consistent across the country - Mr Jospin's scores in most departments were regularly in the 20s, those for the Communists regularly between 6 and 10 per cent, and those for the Trotskyite, Arlette Laguiller, between 4 and 6 per cent, closely reflecting the vote nationally - the vote on the right was sharply differentiated by region and class.

Jacques Chirac, who had invested huge amounts of time and energy travelling the country and wooing the voters, might almost not have bothered. His support remained concentrated in his home region of Corrze and the surrounding areas of central France, and in Paris, where he has been mayor for the past 15 years. Had he not won Paris, it subsequently turned out, he would not have beaten Edouard Balladur. It is an achievement that those with the most experience of Mr Chirac chose to vote for him, but it did not help him elsewhere.

The votes for two of the other right-wing candidates, the record 15 per cent for Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front, and Philippe de Villiers' 4.7 per cent, were equally regionalised. Mr de Villiers, the anti-Maastricht campaigner who received 12 per cent in the European elections last year, was disappointed not to reach 5 per cent. His support was concentrated in his home region of the Vende in western France; elsewhere, his impact was much smaller.

The pattern of Mr Le Pen's support was also highly regional, concentrated in the north, north-east - he topped the poll in Alsace - and in the south- east of the country, where he won ... and Marseilles. In Paris, the National Front lost 5 per cent of its support compared with the last presidential election.

The fall in his support in Paris may partly reflect the gentrification of Paris during Mr Chirac's tenure as mayor, but the National Front did not perform particularly strongly in the departments immediately abutting Paris either, despite the concentration of social problems there. Only Edouard Balladur's vote failed to reflect the regional divide on the right, perhaps because as Prime Minister he was known throughout the country, perhaps because his vote was determined more by class than region.

A breakdown of voting shows support for Mr Balladur rising steeply among the professional and business classes, and among the over-50s of most classes.

Mr Jospin, for the Socialists, did not escape the regional effect entirely. His support was noticeably higher in the south-west of the country, around his power base of Toulouse, but the difference between his highest and lowest votes was nothing like as marked as with the majority of right-wing candidates.