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Profile: French Presidential Candidate Jean-Pierre Chevenement - 2002-04-18

In France, voters will have a record 16 candidates to choose from in the first round of presidential elections Sunday. They range across the political spectrum, from revolutionaries to radical right-wingers, and even a defender of hunters' rights.

Conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac and his main challenger, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, are expected to make it to the run-off next month.

A candidate who has long been active in French politics and hopes to siphon votes away from the two frontrunners is Jean-Pierre Chevenement, and he is known both as a maverick and as a man of principle. Three times in his long political career, he has resigned from Cabinet posts because he could not bear the compromises of government.

In 1991, while the life-long Socialist was serving as defense minister, he quit because he disapproved of French participation in the Gulf War against Iraq. In 2000, he resigned as interior minister because he did not agree with Prime Minister Jospin's plan to give the restive island of Corsica more autonomy. He left the Socialist Party and set up his own Citizens' Movement.

In an election that is as much about trusting the candidate as understanding his policies, that kind of track record gave Mr. Chevenement hope that he was the only third-party candidate who could threaten both of the front-runners.

Marketing research expert Philippe Mechet says Mr. Chevenement climbed fast in the polls during the early stages of the campaign. "He was new. He was in fashion," he said. "All the media were around Mr. Chevenement. He used to speak about France, about the grandeur of the country, something that we have forgotten."

On the one-hand, Mr. Chevenement is against the European single currency, the euro, and is a tough crusader for law and order. That appeals to a lot of people on the right. But, on the other hand, he is a strong supporter of nationalized industry, and speaks critically of globalization, which he sees as an offensive by the United States to impose its economic philosophy, its values and its culture on others. That appeals to people on the left.

Still, the candidate who hoped to draw votes away from both Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin has slipped in the polls. He is now running behind two extremists, Arlette Laguillier, who campaigns on the left for a dictatorship of the proletariat, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme rightist who advocates an end to immigration.

Mr. Chevenement blames the two front-runners for an election campaign that the news media say has put most voters to sleep. "The main reason is that Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin are very boring, and the French are bored, " he said. "Citizens don't see differences between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin. For many reasons. There is no difference between them."

These days, Mr. Chevenement is mostly campaigning on what he sees as the lost glory of France, which he says no longer knows where it is going. He says France has lost control of its destiny, because it has subordinated itself to the European Union and the United States.

Doesn't that make him the respectable face of French nationalism? "I am not a nationalist. I am a French patriot," he said.

Analyst Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute of International Relations, says Mr. Chevenement's attempt to wrap himself in the French flag is not having the effect on voters the candidate hoped for. "He's an intelligent man. He's a charismatic man," he said. "But the anachronism of his program, the archaism of his person, in a way destroyed him. And before he started, he was dead politically in the sense that he campaigned initially against Europe, against the euro, and the euro is an obvious success."

If Mr. Chevenement is frustrated by his lack of progress in the polls, it does not show in his campaigning. He continues to mix with voters in such places as outdoor markets. And he refuses to admit defeat. As voters prepare for the trek to the polls Sunday, Jean-Pierre Chevenement keeps hoping that he will have made a difference once the ballots are cast.