The French head to the polls Sunday for the first of a two-round vote to choose the country's next president. A record number of candidates, 16 altogether, are running, although French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin remain the two top contenders. Few French voters appear enthusiastic about the elections.
Just hours before polls open in France, the biggest winners in this presidential campaign appear to be indifference and uncertainty. A series of polls published between March and April suggest that more than 50 percent of all French people are not at all interested in the race. Another poll published Friday by France's Le Figaro newspaper indicates that 41 percent of French voters had not yet decided who to vote for.
Political experts say one reason for this apparent apathy is that French have so many contenders to choose from, ranging from far-left Troskyists, to far right anti-immigration fighters, along with a candidate supporting hunting and fishing.
But analysts like Etienne Schweisguth, of the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life, notes that neither of the two top candidates, French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, appear very popular with French voters.
"When we ask to the people in France if they wish that Chirac should be reelected, the majority say no," Mr. Schweisguth said. "And if you ask if they wish that Jospin would be elected, the majority say no. So it's not the best who is going to be elected, it is the one, I would say, who is the less worse."
Indeed, the latest polls place both Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin with less than 20 percent support. Analyst Arlette Chabot says those low scores should worry both candidates. In an interview on French radio, Mrs. Chabot said the last two French presidents, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Francois Mitterrand, scored much higher in the first round of voting. Even Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin did better in the last presidential race, seven years ago.
In recent weeks, the conservative president and Socialist prime minister have campaigned on promises to fight crime, improve French pensions and regulate the work week. They argue their platforms are very dissimilar. But a number of surveys show many French do not see much difference between the two.
At a Thursday night rally in the French city of Lille, Mr. Chirac called on his supporters to get out and vote on Sunday. Mr. Chirac, who is holding a slight edge over Mr. Jospin in recent polls, argues his rival's leftist government is responsible for the downturn in the French economy, and for a rise in crime and incivility in France.
For his part, Mr. Jospin argues his government has been successful at creating jobs, growing the economy and giving French equal opportunities. In a series of interviews, such as this recent one on French radio, Mr. Jospin also argues he is an honest man who keeps his campaign promises. The Prime Minister's claim is a clear dig at Mr. Chirac, who has been dogged by a series of political scandals.
But Mr. Jospin appears cold in public, and has difficulty connecting with voters. Mr. Chirac, a natural politician, is much more charismatic.
Analysts say the two candidates will almost certainly come out the top winners following the first round of voting on Sunday. But Etienne Schweisguth, of the French Center, says it is impossible to predict who will win the second round. "There is some uncertainty about the polls and things will be more clear after the first round," he said. "And then we will see if the polls are right or wrong."
The array of second-tier candidates hold the keys to the election's outcome, Mr. Schweisguth and others say. Far right, anti-immigration candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, scored a hefty 14 percent in the latest polls. Another seven percent of French back far left Troskyist candidate, Arlette Laguiller. Their high scores are considered protest votes by French disenchanted with their electoral choices.
Mrs. Laguiller and Mr. Le Pen say they will not support either Mr. Jospin or Mr. Chirac in the second round of voting, scheduled for May 5. But the President and Prime Minister will have plenty of work rounding up support from the other contenders in the two weeks ahead.