Fading regime casts shadow over poll

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The Independent Online
It is strange to see Franois Mitterrand's name in the headlines. The President has been a spectre at the campaign to elect his successor and has only bounced back into the news because his memoirs reached the book- stands yesterday .

It made the front pages of most papers and a Maigret film planned as the main television attraction on Good Friday has been rescheduled to make way for a special edition of the books programme, expected to include a rare appearance by the President.

The election campaign might have been expected to be about his legacy, or about his heirs. But the President seems to have faded from view; he has groomed no successor and there are no claimants. In his occasional recent statements or interviews, he has uttered hope-filled words on European co-operation, his agnosticism, illegitimate daughter, tastes in literature or history, but he seems on a different plane.

Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate, has distanced himself as far as he possibly can and Mr Mitterrand, seemingly, from him.

They have met a couple of times since Mr Jospin was nominated; Mr Mitterrand said he will ``of course'' vote for him; expressed support for his campaign, while calling on him to give France ``something to dream of'' but has gone no further and has not been seen with Mr Jospin.

Mr Jospin, who took over from Mr Mitterrand as Socialist Party leader in 1981, when Mr Mitterrand became President, and who oversaw his successful campaign for re-election in 1988, may well be grateful. His only allusions to the President are in praise of his Europe policy. In other matters, the liabilities are just too great. The big election issue is the "social crisis'': unemployment, homelessness, poverty - the very things that 14 years of a Socialist presidency were supposed not to produce.

Yet Mr Jospin cannot accuse Mr Mitterrand of having "betrayed socialism'' without splitting the party even more than it is split, or seeming disrespectful to a dying man. Mr Mitterrand, whose cancer is advanced, has a doctor with him permanently to oversee his pain control regime, making it possible for him to go on travelling and performing official duties.

Mr Jospin's good fortune is that neither Jacques Chirac nor Edouard Balladur is particularly well-placed to attack the Mitterrand legacy: if they attack his privatising and free-market policies, that is tantamount to forswearing their own policies. If they attack the President personally, they can both be chided with having agreed to serve as his prime minister.

Should Mr Jospin reach the second round, the Mitterrand presidency may become an issue. In a straight left-right contest, it will be the clinching argument. The spectral presence of Mr Mitterrand over this election - barely seen but keenly felt - is one reason why the Socialists will find it so hard to win.

Socialist hopes of winning through to the decisive second round rose last night when two opinion polls put Mr Jospin firmly in second place. They gave Mr Chirac a clear lead in the first round on 23 April, with between 26 and 27 per cent, with Mr Jospin on 21 per cent and Mr Balladur on 17 per cent.

Mr Balladur, who had been in a strong lead at the beginning of the year, had staged something of a recovery in the polls last week. Mr Jospin's appeals for all left wingers to vote him into the second round on 7 May has made an impact. In another poll 53 per cent said they wanted the Socialist in the second round.