Mitterrand to hand reins to Chirac early

THE FRENCH PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION Tony Barber in Paris says an ailing President may be eager to step down as soon as possible

President Franois Mitterrand will hand over power to his successor, Jacques Chirac, a week early, the Culture Minister, Jacques Toubon, said yesterday. Mr Toubon said the hand-over would come at the beginning of next week. Mr Mitterrand's term officially ends on 20 May. Mr Toubon said the next government could be formed "around 20 to 21 May'' and presented to parliament one week later.

Franois Baroin, a Chirac campaign spokesman, said Mr Chirac could take office by tomorrow, but that the date was up to Mr Mitterrand. The President, who is seriously ill with cancer, may be eager to step down as soon as possible, now his successor has been elected.

Union leaders said strikesawait Mr Chirac if he does not make good on his promises to make jobs and wages his top priorities. Marc Blondel, leader of the Workers Force labour federation, said: "There are 8 million youths who are waiting and it's going to blow."

Mr Chirac's victory over Lionel Jospin was more convincing than the 52.6 per cent to 47.4 per cent result might suggest.Outside Socialist strongholds in north-east and south-west France, Mr Chirac triumphed in a great stretch from the Vende on the Atlantic coast, across to Paris, over to Alsace, on the border with Germany, and down to Marseilles and Nice on the Mediterranean.

He won in 16 of the 20 mainland regions and in Corsica. Mr Jospin's successes were restricted to Haute-Normandie, Picardy and Nord-Pas-de- Calais in the north and the Midi-Pyrnes region in the south.

Out of the 96 metropolitan departments, the most important level of administration below central government, Mr Chirac came first in 70. In 10 departments he scored more than 60 per cent. His biggest triumph was in Alpes-Maritimes, containing Nice, where he won by 65.5 to 34.5 per cent. He took six of Marseilles's eight districts, compared with five when he lost the 1988 election to Mr Mitterrand.

Mr Jospin's best result was in the south-west department of Arige, where he took 59.8 per cent of the vote. This was 4 per cent down on Mr Mitterrand's 1988 result in Arige.

An important factor in Mr Chirac's victory was his 56.1 per cent vote in the Paris region, where almost 4.6 million people cast ballots out of a national total of 31.7 million. As Mayor of Paris for 18 years, leading theGaullist party machine there, Mr Chirac was never in much danger of a bad result.

An example of the way the tide turned against the left was provided in Burgundy, where Mr Chirac reversed the 1988 result in three of the four departments. Dijon, the food and wine centre that voted for Mr Mitterrand in 1988, went to Mr Chirac by 54.5 to 45.5 per cent.

His victory would not have been possible without the support of centre- right voters who had helped Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, to score 18.6 per cent in the 23 April first round.

The two Gaullist rivals did not find it easy to patch up their differences, but analysts estimated 80 per cent of Balladur voters switched to Mr Chirac on Sunday. The effect was noticeable in Lyons, where Mr Balladur came top and Mr Chirac third on 23 April, but where Mr Chirac won all 10 city districts on Sunday.

Mr Chirac picked up almost all the 4.7 per cent of first-round votes that went to the anti-Maastricht right-winger, Philippe de Villiers. Mr de Villiers's stronghold is the Vende in the west, where Mr Chirac gained over 60 per cent.

The distribution of the 15 per cent first-round vote that went to Jean- Marie Le Pen, the National Front leader, was more complicated. In southern cities, such as Marseilles, Nice, Toulon and Nmes, where Mr Le Pen scored more than 20 per cent, Mr Chirac attracted enough National Front votes to win comfortably. But in some areas it appeared Mr Le Pen's disclosure that he would cast a blank ballot had an impact. In Alsace, where Mr Le Pen took 25.4 per cent on 23 April, more than 8 per cent of voters cast blank ballots on Sunday.

Immigration of Turks, North Africans and Eastern Europeans is one factor behind this trend.

The national turn-out was 80.5 per cent, but of those who voted, 6 per cent - or almost 1.9 million people - cast blank ballots. This, the highest figure for any presidential election, reflected the continuing influence, albeit negatively expressed of the National Front in French politics.

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