Right's fierce battle leaves French undecided

Today, for the first time in many months, France is a politics-free zone. Campaigning for the first round of the presidential election stopped, by law, at midnight last night. Polling begins early tomorrow morning.

According to the latest opinion polls - which cannot legally be published in France in the week before voting, but are none the less collected - the race is still open: Jacques Chirac is in the lead; Edouard Balladur and Lionel Jospin are running it close for the other place in the second round on 7 May. Almost one-third of voters are undecided.

Voters' indecision has been a hallmark of an unusual campaign. It has been unusual partly because the outgoing president, Franois Mitterrand, seems hardly to exist as a political force, so the importance of what is being fought for is diminished.

It has been unusual, too, because of the three leading contenders, only one - Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris - was expected to run. Mr Balladur had said when he became prime minister two years ago that he would not compete for the presidency. Mr Jospin was propelled into the Socialist nomination only after Jacques Delors decided belatedly not to stand.

And for the first time in many years, immigration and race have not been prominent in an election campaign. They have been treated as merely a part of a more general social crisis.

The campaign has also turned out to be far more varied and far closer than anyone had predicted. Mr Delors' decision not to stand appeared to weaken the left irretrievably and leave the field open for a right versus right contest. Mr Jospin, however, has proved a stronger candidate than forecast, and the widespread angst about social problems has returned to the Socialists some of the credibility many feared they had lost.

Yet the fiercest contest has been on the right. What began as an assumed victory for Mr Balladur, deriving from his solid record as prime minister and his promise of safe, steady progress based on "dialogue and consensus", was suddenly transformed in mid-February into a coup for Mr Chirac's promise of immediate and salutary change to treat the sick society he said France had become. By 23 February, the opinion polls had support for Mr Balladur and Mr Chirac crossing; by mid-March, Mr Chirac had almost as commanding a lead as Mr Balladur had previously enjoyed - leaving Mr Balladur and Mr Jospin to scrap for second place.

One theory has it that Mr Chirac was able, by moving his campaign leftwards through January, to capture some traditional socialist territory at a time when the Socialists were still without a presidential candidate. He has also fought a highly polished campaign.

During the last year he has visited every region and almost every department of France. He is at ease with people everywhere, and builds a rapport with his audiences. In this, he is everything Mr Balladur is not. Mr Balladur began by campaigning on his record and his convictions. But they were not enough, and he had to turn himself from a stately administrator into a campaigning politician.

The change was at times embarrassing. Parading into halls under strobe lighting and to loud rock music does not come naturally to Mr Balladur. But he fought back also with rhetoric, stinging Mr Chirac with accusations that his social programme would double the domestic budget deficit and that his huge stage-managed rallies smacked of demagogy.

But the fightback may not be enough. By yesterday, Mr Balladur's team seemed to be preparing for defeat, speaking of life out of power.

After tomorrow, France will face one of two very different prospects. A second round between Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin would be a familiar left- right battle. A Chirac-Balladur contest would be far more interesting.

It would echo the political battles of the pre-Mitterrand era. It would also force attention on to the issues that have hovered over this campaign but have never been seriously examined: how to combat France's real social problems, particularly unemployment and the disaffection of its young people, while reducing the domestic budget deficit and keeping the franc strong enough to join the single European currency.

Mr Chirac and Mr Balladur have different ideas on these questions. The argument has relevance not just in France, but for Europe, and would reinforce the incipient trend towards more practical, less ideological politics.