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Tumultuous Election Year Expected in France


This year, France will hold national elections expected to usher in a new era in French politics. After more than a decade in office, observers say President Jacques Chirac may not seek a third term. Lisa Bryant has more from Paris on France's tumultuous election-year politics, which begins with a vote Sunday for the presidential candidate of Mr. Chirac's ruling UMP Party.

Sunday's vote to chose the presidential candidate for the conservative Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP party, will offer no surprises. Only one person is running, the country's popular, but controversial interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy has the backing of the UMP's rank and file. But not of its two senior members, French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Indeed, Villepin sparked an uproar and sharp criticism this past week after he said he would not vote Sunday for Sarkozy, a top rival. Political analyst Dominique Moisi says these tensions may erode the conservatives' chances of retaining the presidency, captured by Mr. Chirac in 1995.

"It is dividing the right, But Villepin and Jacques Chirac are playing on the fact that though the UMP is very much behind Nicolas Sarkozy, there's a doubt," he said. "There's a sense that at the end of the day, Sarkozy - though he is the most gifted, the most energetic, the most imaginative French politician in decades - may have in him a deep inner weakness."

Sarkozy has a mixed legacy. He prides himself as being a hands-on, law and order politician who prodded French Muslims to create their first representative council. He has called for a change in the status quo. But his crackdown against illegal immigration and juvenile crime has sparked anger among some in the French electorate.

Sarkozy also faces a tough rival: the opposition Socialist Party's first female candidate, Segolene Royal. Recent surveys give Royal a slight lead in the polls over Sarkozy.

Also unclear are the intentions of current president Chirac. Experts doubt the 74-year-old leader will run for a third term, but Chirac has been silent about the matter. He ducked reporters questions on the subject once again this week, during his annual New Year's greetings to the press.

Mr. Chirac said France was his top priority, and that he would announce his decision about running when the time was right. If he decides to run, he must declare his candidacy before mid-March.

Even if the president seeks another term, few believe he has any chance of winning. Mr. Chirac's popularity ratings are low and many view him as old and out of touch.

Analyst Etienne Schweisguth, of the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life, says that is difficult for a man who has spent decades in politics, and who has never lost a re-election.

What we're seeing is the end of Jacques Chirac's political life, Schweisguth says. It must be a difficult moment for him.

Still, the President is considered a politician with many lives. He faced sagging polls during the last election in 2002. But he won the second round by a landslide against far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen. That vote was considered a referendum against extremism rather than one in favor of Mr. Chirac.

How the far-right will fare this time is anybody's guess. The first round of presidential voting is scheduled for April. Surveys show strong support for Le Pen, 78, up to 17 percent, according to one.

That's more than Le Pen polled during the same period 5 years ago.

Analyst Etienne Schweisguth says Le Pen is the big unknown in this race, particularly since many of his supporters refuse to express their opinions in surveys.

But analyst Dominique Moisi is not so sure.

"There's a major difference between 2002 and 2007, which is precisely the product of 2002," he noted. "Which is that now, in 2007, people are going to vote a lot. And at the end of the day, the percentage of Le Pen votes will be smaller."

One thing is clear. Sunday's UMP party vote is only the beginning of a tough and uncertain election season in France.

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