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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chirac, Jospin Prepare for Battle

PARIS -- Rivals Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin are psyching up their troops to do battle for the French presidency, ignoring howls of indignation over their refusal to admit publicly they are even running.

President Chirac has taken to inviting the leading lights of the fractious center-right opposition to his Elysee Palace offices to hand out marching orders three months before a contest in which he has yet to declare himself.

Prime Minister Jospin recently told his Socialist cohorts at the end of a party convention that France needed a change of president, but he too resisted any urge to declare. His allies had already heard a senior trooper confirm Jospin was "our candidate."

An opinion poll published last week showed that two in three voters want the pair to declare their candidacies soon and many feel the real issues are not being addressed.

Jospin's logic for not leaping out of the starting blocks is that he has a government to run and that declaring too early would dent his reputation for taking the job seriously.

He likes to say that others -- meaning Chirac -- can do and say what they like because they are free of the heavy daily task of managing a country.

Chirac is waiting for his adversary to break cover.

Chirac and Jospin have ruled the country in an edgy "cohabitation" ever since parliamentary elections in 1997.

Herve de Charette, deputy head of the centrist UDF and foreign minister until Chirac made the error of calling elections in mid-1997 in hopes that his center-right government allies would win a more convincing majority, denounced the weekend maneuvres.

"I am deeply shocked by the incessant ballet of those at the Elysee Palace who are in charge of Mr. Chirac's campaign," de Charette said in a handwritten statement issued to the media Sunday. "The headquarters of the republic is being turned into one candidate's campaign headquarters."

Polling booths open April 21 for the first round of the presidential contest, with the runoff set for May 5. Legislative elections follow on June 9 and 16.

The other presidential hopefuls have already declared their colors, and some of them seized on the weekend's events to accuse the two front-runners of arrogance.

Francois Bayrou, a presidential contender whose UDF party is supposed to ally with Chirac's RPR for the June legislative contest, seized on the voter impatience revealed by the opinion poll, published in the daily Le Parisien.

"What the French people are unanimously telling us is simple -- 'we're fed up with being treated like idiots,'" Bayrou said.

"For the first time in the history of the universe, people who are not candidates have already appointed their campaign directors and picked their campaign headquarters," he said at a meeting with UDF leaders Saturday.

On the left, notables and rank-and-file members of Jospin's Socialist Party adopted a party program drafted and presented to the weekend convention by Martine Aubry, who is increasingly seen as a potential prime minister.

Aubry, the former labor minister who introduced the 35-hour week before bowing out of Jospin's Cabinet mid-term, has no doubt about Jospin's intentions.

"'Let's Live Better, Better Together.' What a nice name for the program that we will sign up to in the coming days behind Jospin, our candidate for the presidential election," she said.

Slip of the tongue? Probably not. It is not the style of a woman who may take Jospin's current job if he ousts Chirac and the left retains power in the parliamentary election.

So far, Jospin and Chirac are neck and neck in regular opinion polls on who should be president.

The poll in Le Parisien, conducted Jan. 23-24 by the CSA institute with 1,000 potential voters, showed 54 percent unhappy with the pre-election debate. Of those, 71 percent said the "real issues" had not been addressed.