French presidential elections are less than two-months away and the two major contenders, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, recently announced their candidacies. Half a dozen other candidates launched their bids months ago. But many French are greeting the race with a yawn.
A recent cartoon published by France's Le Parisien newspaper summed up France's electoral dilemma.
There, sharing an Olympics-style podium, stand the country's two leaders and main political rivals. President Jacques Chirac looks irritated. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin looks smug. "Say," Mr. Chirac is telling Mr. Jospin, "you are copying my artistic program."
That is the sentiment underlying this so-far unexciting political season, featuring a disillusioned French public, a constellation of veteran candidates, and two top contenders with seemingly indistinguishable platforms.
The combination, says political analyst Dominique Moisi, makes many French completely uninterested in the presidential race. "When you look at the polls as they are right now, and the level of indecision amongst the electorate, which is unique, 48-percent of the French are saying they do not know whom they are gong to vote for. And 50-percent declared on the second ballot they are gong to vote for Jacques Chirac, and 50-percent declare they are going to vote for Lionel Jospin," says Mr. Moisi. "There is clearly a feeling that there is enthusiasm for none of the two candidates."
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has inaugurated his new campaign headquarters in Paris. Mr. Jospin said democracy was about promises made and kept, in pointed reference to allegations that Mr. Chirac often changes his political line. Mr. Jospin has also defended the five-year record of his leftist coalition government, and vowed to create more jobs, reduce crime, and ensure a modern, sure and strong France.
But Mr. Jospin's vows do not appear much different than those of his conservative rival, Mr. Chirac.
Campaigning in central France this week, Mr. Chirac also vowed to prepare France for the new century, by creating more jobs, reducing business taxes, and easing a 35-hour work week established under Mr. Jospin's government. Both candidates have also promised to crack down on crime.
In foreign policy, both men share reputations as one-time skeptics of European integration, and suspicious of America's world clout. Mr. Chirac is sometimes portrayed as more pro-Palestinian than Mr. Jospin on Middle Eastern affairs.
French analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges believes the two men's policies are essentially very similar. "Concerning the basic issues, really Chirac and Jospin have the same vision of what should be and what are the relations between France and the external world," he says. "We cannot see any major gap, any major discrepancy, any major disagreement between the two men." But on the surface, at least, France's two top men could not be more different.
President Chirac, 69-years-old, is tall, elegant, and outgoing. He has been on the political landscape for decades, as mayor of Paris, French prime minister and leader of his Rally for the Republic Party. This is his fourth presidential race.
Mr. Jospin, by contrast, is a bookish, former economics professor, and minister of education under the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand. He lost to Mr. Chirac in the 1995 presidential race.
But two years later, he became prime minister, when a leftist coalition unseated Mr. Chirac's conservative government in legislative elections. Since then, President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin have maintained an uneasy, cohabitation government.
Political observers say both candidates have their drawbacks. Mr. Chirac has been dogged by a series of scandals, including allegations of overseeing political kickbacks in the past, which he has denied.
Mr. Jospin has also been criticized for his cold and distant manner. He is accused of lying about his Trotskyist past. Critics also attack two landmark policies of his government, a 35-hour work week and plans to give limited self-rule to the island of Corsica.
As Professor Paul Godt, of the American University of Paris points out - Mr. Jospin is no longer a fresh face. "Jospin was the new candidate in 1995. That made a big difference. He was unexpected, he was fresh. He had come at the last minute to the leadership of the Socialist party, with the withdrawal of Jacques Delors. That was something that was new," says Mr. Godt. "We have been playing with the same candidates, more or less, ever since then."
The fresh face of this election season is that of Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former interior minister under Mr. Jospin's government. Mr. Chevenement has charmed French voters with his maverick style and his anti-globalization rhetoric. But he is 10-points behind the other two candidates. Experts say he has little chance of prevailing to the second-round of balloting.
At most, they predict that Mr. Chevenement will tip the scales toward Mr. Chirac or Mr. Jospin, by stealing votes from the other, in first-round balloting.
Polls now show Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin splitting the second round, with 50-percent support apiece, which means that for now, at least, the only surprise in this election will be its outcome.