There was relief and some optimism in the camp of President Jacques Chirac yesterday, after the first substantial poll before Sunday's election run-off indicated he would trounce his far-right rival by a margin of almost four to one.
The poll, conducted by the Ipsos organisation for the conservative Le Figaro newspaper, gave Mr Chirac 78 per cent of the vote, with 22 per cent for the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The poll, which asked about voting intentions, showed little change from an instant poll conducted on the night of the first round 10 days ago, when voters were reeling from the shock of Mr Le Pen's second place. If, as it appears, more than a week of campaigning by both men, including equal television air time, has not increased Mr Le Pen's appeal, Mr Chirac will claim the presidency with one of the biggest mandatesfor a French president.
The pollsters, however, are wary. Since their first-round dèbâcle, when they failed to predict even the possibility of Mr Le Pen going through to the run-off, they have been unusually reticent about the prospects for Sunday's vote.
Yesterday, Ipsos tempered its findings by also trying to gauge the solidity of the voters' intentions. It predicted Mr Chirac's likely tally as anywhere between 74 and 81 per cent, and Mr Le Pen's between 19 and 26 per cent.
If a Chirac victory appears certain, however, the margin of that victory does not. With a sweeping victory, Mr Le Pen is stopped in his tracks as anything but a voice of protest. Were Mr Le Pen to take as much as 40 per cent, though – the current nightmare for his opponents – his views could colour the composition and priorities of the next government.
In trying to predict the size of Mr Chirac's victory, the pollsters are once again flailing. The biggest question is how well the left will mobilise for Mr Chirac. Although the great and the good from the left, along with luminaries from sport and the arts, have crowded the airwaves to urge people to vote for Mr Chirac, no one knows how many will do so.
Some Socialist supporters have said they will not vote at all. Others have said they will vote, but under protest – casting a blank ballot, wearing surgical gloves to "protect" their hands from "contamination" or using tweezers to pick up the ballot paper.
The dilemma of the left was graphically illustrated by the failed Socialist contender himself. It was only at the weekend, and after appeals from senior colleagues, that Lionel Jospin appealed to his erstwhile supporters to vote "against the far-right", and even then he could not bring himself to mention Mr Chirac by name.
Mr Le Pen himself claims that he will produce another surprise and said he would regard less than 30 per cent of the vote as "failure".
Some 40 per cent, or better still, 51 per cent, he said, was on the cards, and he warned Mr Chirac against "selling the bearskin before you have killed the bear".
The greatest variable for Mr Le Pen will be how many of the small-party protest votes he can attract. A majority of the record number of "small" candidates who contested the first round have called on their supporters to vote for Mr Chirac.
*#149; The Italian far-right failed to emerge in convincing numbers in commemoration of the 57th anniversary of Benito Mussolini's death, despite a summons by extremists. Notably silent were the politicians of the ruling post-Fascist party, the National Alliance, which has tried to distance itself from the dictatorship.Reuse content