Many voters undecided as election campaign begins

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The "official", two-week French presidential election campaign begins today with four out of 10 electors still unconvinced by any of the candidates.

Although indecision and skittishness are common features of French elections, the 44 million potential voters are more muddled than ever this year.

Millions of people are still shifting their allegiance almost daily between the three leading candidates of right, left and centre, according to opinion pollsters. Hundreds of thousands of people - especially the young and relatively poor - have registered to vote for the first time, but many of them can raise no enthusiasm for any candidate.

The "official" phase of the campaign, which began at midnight last night, is supposed to clarify choices. It may well muddle them further. From now until the first round on 22 April, all 12 candidates, including the eight "minor" ones, are guaranteed equal exposure on radio and television. Each candidate also has 45 minutes of free time on public television and radio channels, split into self-made commercials up to five and half minutes long.

With no less than five candidates of the Further Left (and the Much Further Left) on the ballot paper, this star-burst of exposure for the minor candidates could be especially damaging for the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal. After holding steady or climbing in the opinion polls in recent weeks, Mme Royal, 53, has dipped in the past couple of days to around 23 per cent of the first-round vote.

The front-runner and main centre-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, has strengthened his position, according to some polls, to 30 per cent or more. He has fallen back slightly in others. Both the centrist candidate, François Bayrou, 55, and the veteran far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, 78, had been stable or falling (at 18 and 13 per cent respectively). Both now seem to be creeping up again.

Only the top two candidates go forward to the second round on 6 May. Almost any second-round permutation of the leading four is still possible. French opinion polling has been unreliable in the past - largely because many voters, especially far right and far left voters, lie to the pollsters.

In February and March, the centrist M. Bayrou - campaigning as a cautious, "one nation" reformer - took advantage of the unexpected lack of fervour for the main candidates. He surged dramatically but began to fall back as soon as the media began to talk of him as a possible president.

Taking heart from his recovery in some polls, M. Bayrou said yesterday he was "certain" to reach the second round. This would, he said, provide a "quiet electro-shock". What use a "quiet" electro-shock would be was not clear.

All candidates have been piling into the front-runner, M. Sarkozy, trying to portray him as a man of extreme and frightening views. The former interior minister has hardened his rhetoric in the past fortnight, trying to carve into the far-right electorate by talking tough on crime and adopting nationalist, and protectionist, positions. In an interview with Philosophie magazine, M. Sarkozy suggested teenage suicides were "genetically" selected. Opponents said this was a "chilling" comment. M. Sarkozy urged them to "keep their cool".

The uncertainty in the electorate is not entirely new. Similar indecision was recorded two weeks before the presidential elections in 1995 and 2002. Then, however, the lack of support for the leading candidates was matched by rejection of the political system. This year the country appears spellbound by the election and determined to vote in large numbers. Registration is up by 4.4 per cent. None of the leading candidates has managed, so far, to surf this wave of renewed enthusiasm for democracy.