French election law forced the nine candidates into a day of public silence Saturday before first-round presidential voting that will select two finalists for a runoff to succeed Francois Mitterrand.
The favorite to lead today’s voting was Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, a conservative who has broadened his base from two previous losing campaigns with populist rhetoric and hints of wage increases.
There is a close battle for second place between Chirac’s fellow conservative, Premier Edouard Balladur, and the nominee of Mitterrand’s Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin.
The patrician Balladur, a former ally of Chirac, held a huge lead just three months ago but proved a less effective campaigner than the gregarious, highenergy Paris mayor.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, was expected to finish fourth. He hopes to surpass his career-best showing of 14.4 percent in the first round in 1988 with a platform that calls for deportation of 3 million immigrants.
Mitterrand, 78, is ailing with prostate cancer as he nears the end of his 14-year presidency, the longest in French history.
He has given only lukewarm support to Jospin, who is struggling to spare the Socialists the embarrassment of a right-vs.-right runoff on May 7.
Chirac, already one of France’s best-known politicians, outworked and out-hustled all his rivals. He began his campaign in November, two months before the others, and covered 15,500 miles.
He was responsible for installing Balladur as prime minister after their Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic, spearheaded a conservative landslide in 1993 legislative elections.
Should Chirac win and replace Mitterrand in mid-May, he is unlikely to make major changes in French foreign policy. Domestically, Chirac’s success might depend on how badly Parliament’s conservative majority is split by his conflict with Balladur.
“We are unquestionably seeing signs of defiance toward the political establishment,” Roland Cayrol, director of the CSA polling firm, told the daily newspaper Le Parisien. “Whoever is elected, the state of grace will undoubtedly be very short and public opinion will be very impatient with the new president.”
For all the pitfalls facing the winner, France’s presidency is among the most powerful in the West. The president controls foreign and defense policy, appoints the prime minister, presides over Cabinet meetings, influences judicial appointments, and can dissolve parliament.