Jospin defies the odds to give Chirac an unexpected battle

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The Independent Online
Five minutes before Lionel Jospin is due to appear, the local Socialist Party organiser is growing increasingly anxious.

Has no one bothered to turn up for the rally because of the long holiday weekend? Has the nationwide electoral sulk reduced the attendance to embarrassingly poor levels? Not a bit of it. His concern is that the Salles des Fetes might collapse under the weight of people pushing into the old building to see the Socialist Party leader.

"It can't possibly take it, " he mutters. "It'll be a disaster, a disaster."

This is Tulle, in Correze, President Chirac's home departement, but still they come pouring in on a sunny, bank-holiday weekend to see "Lionel". They are mostly middle aged, or elderly, and mostly well-dres-sed; this is by no means a working class audience. On the other hand, according to local party officials, it is by no means a gathering of activists either.

With less than week to the first round of the French parliamentary elections, Lionel Jospin, even here in the heart of enemy territory, is beginning to pull in the crowds.

The publication of opinion polls has been banned since the weekend: the final polls suggested that the loose alliance of the left (Socialists and Communists combined) and the governing coalition of centre-right parties are running neck and neck, with around 38 to 40 per cent of the vote each. A couple of polls even put the left slightly ahead. The presumption of all the pollsters is that transfers from the far right National Front (which has 13 to 15 per cent) will hand the election to the present government by about 40 seats at the second round on 1 June.

But the electoral arithmetic of turn-out, survival of candidates into the second round, and transfers of votes, is impossibly complex. As Mr Jospin tells the audience in Tulle, no one can be sure of the outcome. "There is still everything to play for

This was a snap election which Mr Jospin - unprepared, with a muddled programme, and over-reliant on the Communists - was supposed to have had little chance of winning. The state of the final polls is already a considerable victory for the Socialist Party leader; and a rejection, whatever the final result, of President Chirac's gamble in calling the election nine months early.

If the polls in the final days continue to drift leftwards (they are still taken, although not published in France), the President may yet be forced to send his unpopular Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, to the political guillotine to appease the crowds.

In the meantime, despite the nationwide lack of interest in the holiday- interrupted election campaign, Mr Jospin has once again proved himself an elusively effective campaigner. Just like the presidential election in 1995, he has defied predictions of his early demise.

Mr Jospin is likeable rather than charismatic; drily precise, almost literary, rather than barnstormingly eloquent. But he manages to convey passion, warmth and wit. By contrast, even the the government's supporters despair of the cold and limp performances of the Prime Minister, Mr Juppe. The centre-right has been badly missing the passion and energy of President Chirac, whose elevated office prevents him from making more than the occasional sortie on to the battlefield.

In Tulle, Mr Jospin amuses the uncomfortably squashed audience by chiding them for coming to see him. The President, in his wisdom, had ordained a short, early poll, in- terrupted with holiday weekends, he said, so that the French people need not bother their heads with politics. It was very ungrateful and obstinate of them to turn out for a politician, and especially a man of the left.

However, the Socialist Party leader makes little attempt to defend his own programme: a curious mixture of commitment to markets, Europe and state-reform and reversion to statist solutions (a mandatory 35-hour working week; creating 700,000 jobs for the young, half of them in the public sector). Under pressure from the Communists and radical left, Mr Jospin has moved to a position of EMU-scepticism, promising, in effect, to renegotiate the terms of the single currency.

If Mr Jospin is the next French Prime Minister - a possibility not yet to be excluded - would he swing to the right again, to accommodate his co-habitation with President Chirac?

Or would the leftward tug of the Communists and radicals helping to give him a parliamentary majority, leave France in a strange left-right, Europositive- Eurosceptical twilight?

Mr Jospin is honest, intelligent, and likes to do what he promises to do. As Prime Minister, he would find it difficult to be all three.