Chirac fires first shots in re-election campaign

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac tore up his preferred script for an aloof and brief re-election campaign yesterday and declared – one month earlier than expected – that he would again stand this spring.

Shaken by a slide in the opinion polls and the airing of financial scandals from his past, the 69-year-old President announced he would fight his fourth successive presidential election campaign, equalling the record of his former rival, the late François Mitterrand.

On a visit to Avignon, Mr Chirac told supporters that he would be a candidate in the two-round election on 21 April and 5 May. "Yes, I am a candidate," he said. "I believe in France, and I know and love the people of France. I believe that, putting aside ideologies and prejudices and dogma, and through dialogue, we can lead France to victory together."

The invited audience of 100 burst into applause and sang the "Marseillaise". There was no surprise in Mr Chirac's decision to run in the election, but he had intended to remained cocooned in his presidential dignity until mid-March, at least. He had wanted to run a brief but sonorous campaign, overwhelming his presumed chief rival, the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin.

The President has been forced into the open by a slide in the polls and the desertion of some centre-right supporters to a mischief-making campaign run by the leftist nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement.

Mr Chirac has also been wounded by renewed press speculation over financial scandals in his past, precipitated by the return to France last week of Didier Schuller, a former senior official of his RPR party, who fled to the Caribbean during the last presidential campaign in 1995. Although the President appealed for a dignified and serene campaign, his early leap on to the hustings might signal the start of one of the nastier electoral battles in recent French history.

Despite his seven years in office, Mr Chirac has few achievements to point to. He called – and lost – an early parliamentary election five years ago, allowing Mr Jospin's centre-left coalition to take over domestic politics.

The President will accuse Mr Jospin (technically his own Prime Minister) of wasting the economic growth of the late 1990s and letting crime and violence thrive. Mr Jospin, who must declare his candidacy shortly, will respond by pointing to Mr Chirac's meagre record, and constantly changing views, over 40 years of politics.

In other words, France's European and other partners will be treated to the extraordinary spectacle of the two heads of France's cohabiting left-right government lashing into one another verbally for the next nine weeks.

There will be at least a dozen other candidates in the first round but only the first two go forward to the run-off on 5 May. In recent opinion polls, Mr Chirac has lost the comfortable lead he held over Mr Jospin for most of last year. The two men are now forecast to top the first-round poll with about 23 per cent of the vote each. They are running at roughly 50–50 in forecasts for the second round.

Mr Chirac's priority will be to check the advance of Mr Chevènement, who has risen to between 12 and 14 per cent in the projected first-round vote.There is little chance that Mr Chevènement can reach the run-off, but his powerful performance threatens to scatter and demoralise the centre-right coalition that the President needs to beat Mr Jospin in the second round.