Too close to call as France goes to the polls

French election: Boredom with the main candidates, and state funding of political parties, give fringe groups a chance of success
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France goes to the polls today in the first round of a presidential election in which all was still to play for even as officials laid out the ballot papers for the 8am start.

The last opinion poll before yesterday's eve-of-election moratorium showed the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, with 19.5 per cent of the vote, and the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, with 18 per cent. Support for Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme right National Front candidate, was running at 14 per cent, placing him third.

The same polls showed the two frontrunners tied at 50-50 in the second round, which would make this one of the closest French elections ever.

Rumours that Mr Le Pen might beat one or other of the mainstream candidates today – ensuring his second-round opponent a landslide victory – were generally discounted or dismissed as scare tactics devised by Mr Jospin's socialist camp to encourage his supporters to vote. For, despite an energetic campaign and a record 16 first-round candidates, French analysts speculate that the real winner could be a "17th candidate" – that is, public apathy.

More than 40 per cent of France's 40 million registered voters were reported still to be undecided by late last week; and there were fears that one in three would not vote at all. This would still lead to a 70 per cent turnout – high by the standards of many democracies, but low for a French presidential election.

But the 2002 campaign has been highly unusual, riddled with paradoxes and uncertainty. French voters have affected disdain, confident that either Mr Chirac or Mr Jospin will win, and not overly exercised about which, calling them "two sides of the same coin". Yet the first round is being contested by more candidates than ever, and attendance at rallies has been high.

Of the 16 candidates, more than half are new to national politics; a departure for a country that is politically and socially conservative. But it is a foregone conclusion that the second round will be contested by veterans, each of whom may have drawn less than 20 per cent of the first-round vote. That has France's political establishment, and the mainstream candidates themselves, concerned about how such minimal support might affect the next president's authority.

As the fortunes of the small, often single-issue, parties rose in the polls, thanks partly to equal state-funded television time, the so-called "fragmentation" of the electorate became an election theme itself.

Today, French voters can choose from three different brands of far-left Trotskyism, a Communist, three far-right candidates professing degrees of "family values" and racism, and two environmentalists.

There is also a "hunting, fishing, nature and tradition" party, a hitherto apoliticalgroup now fiercely politicised by EU restrictions on hunting. The Hunters' last rally, in Toulouse, drew 3,000 people, blowing hunting horns in appreciation of their leader, Jean Saint-Josse. Local socialists in the city were hard put to attract half that number to listen to the mayor of Paris ginger up support for Mr Jospin.

Since the presidential frontrunners are "cohabiting" in power, protest voters have nowhere to go but the outer political fringe. But the mainstream candidates also bear blame for the flight of voters by not differentiating themselves convincingly. Mr Chirac seemed content to act "presidential", while Mr Jospin was criticised in his own camp for not vaunting his government's achievements, such as falling unemployment, the 35-hour week, and the smooth transition to the euro.

The likely outcome today is a Jospin-Chirac run-off, which would happen in a fortnight's time. But the huge number of undecided voters, the record number of candidates and the question of turn-out, leave what was once a foregone conclusion much in doubt.