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French perversity the only barrier to second Chirac win

The French President, Jacques Chirac, looks likely to win a comfortable centre-right majority in next month's parliamentary elections, although the perversity of voters and the complexity of the voting system could still spring a surprise.

An opinion poll published this week suggested that 55 per cent of people intended to vote for moderate right-wing parties in the first round on 9 June. But the outcome is far from certain.

Less than three weeks after emerging from one political crisis, France is heading into an election campaign that could end in a constitutional impasse. A victory for the left in the second round on 16 June would leave Mr Chirac, and France, back where they started: in a frustrating division of power between left and right.

All the recent polls and political body language suggest Mr Chirac's Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, will win a majority in the National Assembly, leaving the centre right in command of all institutions for the next five years.

This would be the only healthy, or sane, outcome. The left-right "co-habitation" over the past five years was what helped to stoke the frustrations that produced Jean-Marie Le Pen's breakthrough in April.

The indications are that a majority of people want to avoid another perverse pairing between a president of the right and a prime minister of the left. However, the polls gave a similar lead to the centre right before the 1997 election. That ended in victory for a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Greens. Then, as now, the uncertainty was created partly by the presence of a strong "third force", the far right, in a system designed to lead to a two-way battle between the moderate right and the moderate left.