Le Pen joins crowded field in presidential race French presidency

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The forthcoming French presidential election will feature a larger and more confusing field of candidates than ever before.

A variety of flavours on the extreme right and extreme left will appear on the ballot paper for the first round of the election on 21 April.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front leader, announced yesterday that he had assembled the signatures of the 500 elected officials needed to qualify for the first round, after protesting for weeks that attempts were being made to force him off the ballot paper. He will be one of at least 17 presidential hopefuls (the previous record is 12) who will be given equal access to television and radio air time and an advance on public campaign funds over the next two and a half weeks.

Only the leading two candidates, most probably President Jacques Chirac on the right and Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, on the left, will go forward to the second round on 5 May. The range and number of first-round candidates reflects the fragmentation and confusion of the French political landscape, contributing to what has been, until now, a dispiriting campaign.

Mr Le Pen, who had protested that the Chirac camp was using dirty tricks to deny him the signatures he needed, triumphantly took his last few nominations to the constitutional council seven hours before the deadline at midnight last night.

Although he may have been milking the situation for sympathy Mr Le Pen, 73, has succeeded in pushing up his likely share of the first round vote to 10 per cent in the most recent opinion polls.

These continue to suggest that the "main candidates", Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin, command between them just above 40 per cent of the "first preference" vote of French voters, the lowest combined score of front-runners in a French presidential campaign.

Most recent polls have shown Mr Jospin narrowly ahead in the second round.

President Chirac, perhaps gaining from a series of violent incidents that have underscored his "law and order" message, regained the lead in one survey published yesterday.

On the left, Mr Jospin's support continues to be eaten away by a rise in the protest vote for the unreconstructed Trotskyist candidate, Arlette Laguiller, who is running at about 10 per cent in the polls.

Mr Jospin's campaign spokesman, Vincent Peillon, warned the Chirac camp yesterday against trying to make political capital from the murder of eight councillors by a gunman in a suburb of Paris last week and a series of attacks on synagogues by Palestinian sympathisers in recent days.

"You can't just use anything to feed an election campaign," Mr Peillon said. "Mr Chirac, like everyone else, has to show a bit of decorum."