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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chirac, Jospin: Neck and Neck To the Runoff

The sparkle in the eye of Lionel Jospin is visible to all. The Socialist candidate for the Elys?e Palace has transformed himself since his unexpected victory in the first round of France's presidential election. He now looks like a man who believes he can triumph in Sunday's runoff against Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist mayor of Paris.


The transformation is encapsulated in Jospin's new slogan. For the first round, he used the somewhat baffling slogan: "With Lionel Jospin, it is clear." The day after his first-round triumph, he replaced this with the much punchier "Lionel Jospin, the president of real change."


The new slogan has stung Chirac. For the last five months, Chirac has based his strategy on the assumption that he can persuade French voters that he is not just any old ambitious right-wing politician but a man with a radical and all-encompassing vision, a statesman who will lead the country boldly and look after the interests of everyone in France.


The results of the first round suggest that Chirac misjudged his ability to mold French opinion. His score of just over 20 percent was less than 2 percent higher than he achieved 14 years ago, when he first ran for the presidency. He only just defeated the other Gaullist hopeful, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, and he failed to prevent another 20 percent of the vote from going to candidates well to the right of himself.


Although Chirac remains the favorite, it is unclear exactly how he will construct the necessary majority of more than 50 percent. In the first round, he stressed centrist, even left-of-center themes such as the need to help the exclus -- the unemployed, homeless and poor. But very few voters rose to the bait. Jospin will surely pick up almost all the left-of-center vote, and a significant number of the centrists, this Sunday.


At the same time, Chirac cannot be assured of winning all the first-round votes that went to other rightist candidates. Even if he attracts most of the Balladur and Philippe de Villiers vote -- say, 21 percent -- he will still need to win more than half of the 15 percent vote that went to the extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front.


Surveys make clear that a large proportion of Le Pen's support came from the unemployed and from voters who until recent years would have identified themselves as Communists. These are not people who will feel obliged to transfer their allegiance automatically to Chirac. Some will likely abstain. As well, Chirac's bitter fight against Balladur in the first-round campaign may make many Balladur supporters withhold their support from Chirac this time.


To predict the result is therefore a hazardous business, not least because the leading French opinion poll institutes all wound up with egg on their faces after the first round. It is easy to write off Jospin's chances on the grounds that the French must surely want a change after 14 years of Fran?ois Mitterrand's regal and increasingly corrupt socialism. It is less easy to ignore the fact that Jospin has skillfully distanced himself from the Mitterrand style of leadership and comes across as a politician of deeper personal integrity than Chirac. In a one-on-one contest such as that for the French presidency, personal qualities matter enormously.


Still, having tipped Chirac and Jospin for the runoff last March, I feel my luck is in. French socialism remains in crisis. I go for Chirac, but by a margin no greater than 52 to 48 percent.