Race for Elysee catches alight

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The Independent Online
Opinion polls published yesterday indicate that Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate for the French presidency, is making considerable ground on the right-wing favourite, Edouard Balladur, and will reach the second- round run-off easily.

With two months' campaigning to go, the polls suggest the race could be closer than predicted as the large number of "don't knows'' start to decide.

The first poll, which was commissioned from Sofres, was done at the end of last month as the Socialists settled on a candidate and would give Mr Jospin 21 per cent in the first round, a six-point increase on his previous rating.

The same poll shows Mr Balladur registering a 3 per cent fall, to 26 per cent. Similar findings were registered by a second poll, commissioned for Paris-Match and the radio station Europe 1.

A third poll, by IFOP, has Mr Jospin and Mr Balladur neck-and-neck in the first round but only if the centre-rightist and former prime minister Raymond Barre stands. He has said he will announce his decision in the next week but has given every sign he will throw his hat into the ring.

His intervention was always likely to upset calculations, because he could potentially take votes from all three leading contenders: Mr Balladur and Jacques Chirac on the right and Mr Jospin on the left. What yesterday's polls suggest is that Mr Barre's candidacy would cause far more damage to Mr Balladur than to the other two.

Although none of the polls suggests Mr Balladur is in danger of losing in the second round, they do show his victory could be less of a walkover than supporters expect.

The polls were all done before he presented his manifesto on Monday. The manifesto, which promises to tackle unemployment but maintain social security at existing levels, has been widely greeted as "more of the same'' and "boring''.