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Voting Begins in French Presidential Election - 2002-04-21


French voters are heading to the polls in the country's first round of presidential elections. Experts believe the turnout will be low, and that many disenchanted voters will support extremist candidates.

It is a flawless spring morning in Paris as Marie-Louise Lasmezas, baguettes tucked under one arm, heads for the polling station at the 19th arrondissement city hall. Like many French who have been surveyed in recent weeks, Mrs. Lasmezas says she had a hard time choosing among a record 16 presidential contenders. But at the end, Mrs. Lasmezas says she will vote for President Jacques Chirac, because she believes he has the experience and international clout needed during these troubled times.

The last surveys, officially banned after Friday midnight, placed Mr. Chirac slightly ahead of his main rival, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But many polls also showed the two candidates popularity at record lows, with less than 20 percent support apiece.

Analysts also predict a record 30 percent of France's 40 million eligible voters may not vote at all in the first round. They believe many French are tired with their political choice.

Others are expected to vote for extreme right or extreme leftist contenders, whose backing may prove the strongest in years. That includes Parisian Gabriel Salaum, who says he will be voting for Troskyist candidate Arlette Laguiller.

Mr. Salaum says Mrs. Laguiller fights for the rights of working class French like himself. He says he is fed up with the same men in power, including Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin.

But not everyone shares France's voter ennui this election season. Outside the northern Paris city hall, Andre Demarez says she remains an enthusiastic Chirac supporter.

Mrs. Demarez says Mr. Chirac is a wonderful president. She says Mr. Chirac's wife Bernadette, is also a very good first lady. And she believes Mr. Chirac will be reelected.

Analysts believe Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin will emerge the top winners in the first round of voting. That will set them up for a final face-off May 5. France will find out if that's the case shortly after 8:00 p.m. local time (1800 UTC) Sunday, when the last polling booths close and the first results come in.