Campaign In France Turns Into 'War of 2 Js'

PARIS -- Quite unusually for a French parliamentary election, the campaign for next month's poll is turning into a personal duel between two men -- Gaullist Prime Minister Alain Jupp? and Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin.

What the French media are calling the "war of the two Js" and the "implacable duel" could climax with a television debate between the two rivals for the premiership before the first round of voting May 25.

Yet opinion polls show neither man is regarded by his side's supporters as the best candidate for prime minister.

Among conservatives, Jupp? came a poor fourth after former prime minister Edouard Balladur, Eurosceptic parliament speaker Philippe Seguin and free-marketeering ex-finance minister Alain Madelin, according to the Ifop poll for the weekly magazine VSD.

Many voters see the balding, abrasive premier, in office since May 1995, as a heartless technocrat despite efforts by "spin doctors" to give him a more human, caring image.

On the left, Jospin narrowly trailed former Socialist labor minister Martine Aubry, daughter of former European Commission president Jacques Delors, as the preferred candidate. Surveys suggest voters see the shy, silver-haired Jospin, defeated but not humiliated by Jacques Chirac in the 1995 presidential election, as decent but dull and out of touch.

The Socialist leader admits that he comes across as stiff and stilted in public, although aides say he is relaxed and has a sense of humor in private. He is an intellectual and lacks a common touch with ordinary voters.

"The personalization of this combat of chiefs serves both sides mutually, up to a point," wrote commentator Paul Guilbert in the conservative daily Le Figaro.

By rallying behind Jupp?, he said, the coalition could at last heal the wounds opened by the 1995 presidential campaign, when Chirac and Balladur, his fellow Gaullist rival, fought a bitter battle that split the right.

Yet the Socialists have homed in on Jupp? as a potential coalition liability, attacking his record of tax increases and rising unemployment and painting the election as a referendum on whether voters want five more years of his premiership.