France goes to the polls Sunday to choose among 16 candidates for president. The two front-runners, conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac and his socialist rival, prime minister Lionel Jospin, are expected to garner enough votes to face each other in what could be an razor-thin runoff on May 5. But neither of the two men has been able to inspire voters.
The French, normally passionate about their politics - especially when there is a clear-cut ideological choice to be made - are apathetic this time around. Though there are enough candidates in the race for France's highest office to suit all tastes, it is taken for granted that Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin will each win about 20 percent of the vote and move into the second round.
Mr. Chirac beat Mr. Jospin in the last presidential election in 1995, but, two years later, was forced to share power with him when the socialists and their allies took control of parliament.
Both men are in their sixties and members of France's mainstream political elite. Their platforms are centrist and, according to most analysts, indistinguishable.
Where there are differences between the two is in style.
Mr. Chirac is an affable, smooth-talking, flesh-pressing, baby-kissing politician who likes to wade into a crowd. But he has been tainted by a series of fund-raising scandals that go back to his time as mayor of Paris, and his standing among young voters is especially low.
A popular television program that uses rubber puppets to spoof politicians portrays Mr. Chirac, clad in a Superman suit, as Super-liar, complete with a Pinocchio-like nose, for his failure to provide information about his alleged involvement in the scandals. But Pierre Lelouche, a foreign policy analyst who supports Mr. Chirac, said the characterization is unfair and that the president is as truthful as any other politician.
"He studies a lot. He reads a lot. He is a very warm person. He is a nice guy," Mr. Lelouche said.
The same television program that casts Mr. Chirac as Super-liar portrays the bespectacled Mr. Jospin as such a bore that his entourage nods off whenever he speaks.
Few people in France deny that the professorial prime minister is honest, hard-working and competent, a product, many say, of his Protestant upbringing. But his dry personality and his intellectual demeanor have made him an uninspiring presidential candidate. Mr. Jospin's biographer, Sylvie Maligorne, said he should loosen up.
"Lionel Jospin is somebody who is very strict, serious, honest. But, at the same time, he has a tendency to judge everybody, which can be unpleasant. The French are people who are not very obedient. They don't like rules too much. And somebody who puts discipline forward as a personal principle is annoying. And that is his weakness. He should relax a bit and show some warmth," Ms. Maligorne said.
Whereas Mr. Chirac has turned off many voters by not being forthcoming about the corruption allegations against him, pollster Philippe Mechet said Mr. Jospin broke a cardinal rule of French politics by criticizing the incumbent president as old and worn out.
"France is politically correct. So there are things that we can think but not say, especially when we are a candidate," Mr. Mechet said.
Mr. Mechet said Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin, who have been forced to work together for the past five years, cordially despise each other. Their power-sharing arrangement has shown just how little power a French president really has. The chief of state controls foreign and defense policy. But the prime minister controls the pursestrings.
The president can do little about such issues as crime and the economy without having the prime minister on his side.
So both candidates must do more than win the presidential election. They have to convince voters to give their parties a victory in the legislative elections that are due in June. Only then will whoever is elected president know whether he can really lead France or just be what some have dubbed a spectator president, like Mr. Chirac has been for the past five years.