Don't mention la politique...

Presidential race » A jaded electorate has yet to get behind any candidate for the Elysée Palace
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The Independent Online

Politics? Did you mention politics? With two weeks to go to the first round of the French presidential election, not a single national newspaper made the campaign its main front-page story yesterday.

Presidential election campaigns – devised by Charles de Gaulle to anoint a head of state to lead the nation, not to pick a mere prime minister to conduct the government – are supposed to be battles for the soul of France. The present campaign has become a losing battle for the attention of France.

Whatever the outcome after the second round on 5 May, it is clear that neither of the leading candidates – President Jacques Chirac on the right or Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on the left – has generated any momentum or popular enthusiasm.

As one leading French pollster says, the race has become a contest between two "machines à perdre" (losing machines), a kind of demolition derby in which the cars constantly drive into the crash barriers. In the past week, the two major events in the campaign have been: an auditor's report which showed that Jacques Chirac, while mayor of Paris, consumed up to £170,000 worth of food, drink and cigarettes a year in his private apartments at the town hall; and a leaked document suggesting that Lionel Jospin has been misleading the nation over French budget prospects.

Two recent polls suggest that Mr Chirac may have regained a narrow lead in the likely second round vote; all others have shown Mr Jospin in the lead. Since French opinion polls have a poor recent record of accuracy, the ultimate winner is anyone's guess.

Overall, the national mood – from urban France to La France Profonde – is to get rid of President Chirac. After 35 years in the forefront of national politics, after seven years in the Elysée Palace, he commands just over 20 per cent – one in five – of the first preference votes in the country.

But the nation has not been convinced that Lionel Jospin is the right man to replace him and give France a push into the 21st century. Depending on the poll, Mr Jospin is running at just above or just below 20 per cent in the first round vote. After a vigorous start, he appears to have lost the plot, unsure whether to attack Mr Chirac directly (which has already got him into trouble) or wait for the President to hand the election to him.

A combined total of 40 per cent would be the lowest score for the two front-runners in the first round of any French presidential election. The three leading wrecking candidates of right and left – Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front (11 to 12 per cent in the polls), Jean Saint-Josse of a new anti-urban hunters and fishers party (3 to 4 per cent) and Arlette Laguiller of the moony, Trotskyist far left (9 to 10 per cent) are attracting something like one in four of French votes.

There are 11 other candidates, 16 in all, a record field for a French presidential race, which reflects, in itself, the fragmentation of French politics. Why such disaffection? The fact that both the front-runners are already in power has not helped. How can you vote against the status quo when you are likely to have a second round choice between the President and Prime Minister?

There is also a national mood of disgust for politics, fed by repeated financial scandals and the seeming inability of new faces or new ideas to emerge in the French system. Against that, the French electorate is itself in a perverse, even frivolous mood, constantly complaining that politicians are incapable of delivering change and then supporting every sectional revolt against each attempt at reform.