Chirac and Jospin slug out no-score draw

FROM MARY DEJEVSKY

in Paris

In the absence of a clear victor from Tuesday night's live television debate, the teams of France's two presidential contenders were yesterday picking over the entrails, trying to present their respective candidate as the winner.

Franois Baroin, the campaign spokesman for the Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac, said that he had put over the image of someone who was "taking charge of the country's destiny", someone "rich in experience and mature, who offered a presidency that would be both strong and measured". Mr Chirac's opponent, the Socialist, Lionel Jospin, he said, had appeared "defensive and imprecise".

Mr Jospin's chief spokesman, Jean-Christophe Cambadlis, said of the Socialist candidate, "a statesman was born last night". He praised Mr Jospin's handling of the debate, saying that he had presented his policies with precision and authority. Pierre Mauroy, a former Socialist prime minister and party elder statesman, said that Mr Jospin had "gained a great deal of credibility" from his performance, while Martine Aubry, a senior member of Mr Jospin's political team, said that Mr Chirac had shown the "incoherence" of his programme.

Outside the camps of the two contenders, however, the two-hour debate, which has become a tradition of the second round of presidential campaigns, was generally seen as disappointing, even boring. It attracted only 16.8 million viewers - just over half the audience for the presidential debate seven years ago - and, despite Mr Baroin's eulogy to Mr Chirac, failed to produce either a sense of theatre or an obvious victor.

The considered consensus of French pundits was that the debate had ended in the equivalent of a "no- score draw". The organisation had been highly professional, the two candidates had conducted themselves in a very gentlemanly and courteous fashion, and both had shown themselves to be well briefed and authoritative, but did not engage with each other sufficiently to make a real fight of it.

Mr Chirac, while successfully exploiting his long experience of high office and statesmanship, was unable to push home this advantage by convincingly blaming Mr Jospin and 14 years of socialism for all France's current ills. Mr Jospin for his part, while mostly more specific in his replies, made some mistakes.

He appeared to lose his briefing notes on Europe and fluffed his reply, and he forgot to talk about equal rights for women at work until his closing statement. He may also have lost votes by failing to offer a clear policy to counter illegal immigration and in enunciating his intention to reintroduce the principle that anyone born in France is automatically a French citizen.

Cognoscenti of the political scene tended to the view that Mr Chirac had gained a marginal advantage; the daily Infomatin, assessing the two candidates on everything from appearance to content, gave him 14.7 points to Mr Jospin's 14.5. Lay people, however, tended to see Mr Jospin as having the edge, saying that they found his preferred solutions more convincing and his manner more trustworthy than Mr Chirac's.

Before the debate, there was a feeling that if Mr Jospin could win, he was still in with a chance of the presidency, but that if he lost, he was out of the race, whereas Mr Chirac simply had to avoid trouble to remain the favourite.

There was general agreement yesterday that the balance of advantage was pretty much the same as it had been before the debate, when Mr Chirac was lying between 8 and 10 points ahead in the polls.

As one commentator said with some relief, "it has put television back in its place". Expressing a similar sentiment, one of the tabloid papers told its readers in a banner headline: "Now it's up to you to decide".

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