French Presidential elections: Candidates for all causes - far left to the hard right

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And what if the "third man" should be a woman?

Much of the media interest in the early part of the French campaign has been in who might be the best of the rest – which of the "minor" candidates will come closest to Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac on 21 April?

At one point, there was talk that Jean-Pierre Chevènement, 63, the maverick, anti-European, anti-American, socialist-nationalist, might even force President Chirac out of the top two.

This was always an unlikely prospect and Mr Chevènement has now slumped from a peak of 14 per cent to between 7 and 9 per cent in the first-round polls.

The new, rising star is – preposterous though it may seem – the perpetual Trotskyist candidate, Arlette Laguiller, 61, spokesperson of the Lutte Ouvriére (workers' struggle) party. "Arlette" – as she is invariably known in France as if she were an old-fashioned film star – is running her fifth presidential campaign.

A retired bank worker, she is celebrated among other things for her drab clothes and her unvarying introduction: "Travailleuses, travailleurs."

She believes that all profit-making is evil. Her party is a secretive sect, run by a man with the codename Hardy, who is actually a small businessman in the Paris suburbs.

Most of her support is a protest vote by the romantic and hard left against the centrist policies in government of the Socialists and their Communist coalition partners. If Arlette "defeats" the Communist Party leader, Robert Hue, 55, in the first round (as she may), it will mark the final humiliation of the once-great Communist movement in France.

It would also be worrying for Mr Jospin, who cannot expect automatically to inherit ex-Arlette votes in the second round. The Jospin camp must also be anxious about the potential of the Green candidate, Noel Mamere, 53, who commands a disappointing 6 per cent in the polls.

The other middle-rank candidate is Jean Marie Le Pen, 73, leader of the far-right National Front party. He is credited with about 10 per cent in the polls, down from his historic peak of 15 per cent since the split with his former number two Bruno Mégret, 52, who is stuck at 1-2 per cent.

On the centre right, neither François Bayrou, 50, leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) Party, nor Alain Madelin, 55, of the pro-market, conservative Démocratie Libérale has made much impression. They are marooned at 3-4 per cent, which is disappointing for them and worrying for Mr Chirac, who needs a carry-over of their votes in the second round.