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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France's Straight Man Aims for Top

PARIS -- The time-honored electioneering ritual of baby-kissing is not for France's prime minister and newly declared presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin.

"I don't have the mother's permission," the 64-year-old Socialist insisted on a campaign stop this year to the amazement of photographers hovering expectantly around a conveniently placed baby girl.

A dour, Protestant former economics professor who shows disdain for the low tricks of politics, Jospin is admired for his sincerity but, surveys show, not yet loved by a French public who prefer their leaders a little less stiff and earnest.

Facing the effusive conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac -- who is never happier than when plunging into crowds of adoring fans or patting cows' hides at farm shows -- Jospin is determined to run on his record in power as prime minister for five years.

Jospin will point to economic growth and lower unemployment as proof that, after spending much of his career in the shadow of past giants of the French left, he is as much of a statesman as a steady-hand manager of France's day-to-day affairs.

He declared his long-awaited candidacy for April and May's two-round presidential election Wednesday by way of a sober statement issued by his party headquarters in which he spelled out a five-point vision for five years as president.

It was a gesture that will be seen as a deliberate contrast to Chirac's declaration last week before cameras at a crowded event in the southern city of Avignon.

The son of a Socialist activist who ran a school for "difficult" children in the Paris suburbs, Jospin listened as his parents debated leftist ideology over the dinner table.

"The Left is my mother tongue," he later remarked of convictions that have taken him from Trotskyism to the more pragmatic Socialism of his current coalition government.

As a student and later, as he launched his career as a civil servant in the foreign ministry, Jospin was an activist for the Trotskyist OCI group -- an allegiance he was to cover up for years.

Joining the Socialist Party, he caught the eye of its leader, Francois Mitterrand, who became his mentor and guided Jospin's swift rise to the top of the party structure.

When Mitterrand came to power in 1981, it was Jospin -- then Socialist Party general secretary -- who invited the "people of the left" to come in their thousands to Paris's Place de la Bastille to celebrate the left's landmark victory.

With the French left in disarray after its rout in legislative elections in 1993, no obvious Socialist candidates presented themselves to run against Chirac for president in 1995.

Up stepped Jospin -- and while he lost, he polled a better-than-expected 47.4 percent of the vote.

The high point of his career came two years later, as Chirac took the failed gamble of shoring up his wavering popularity by calling early parliamentary elections that ushered in Jospin as prime minister of a coalition with the Communists and Greens.

Jospin promptly set about a program of leftist reforms, notably the controversial 35-hour working-week policy that alienated much of French business, and measures to boost youth employment.

Social moves included bills granting recognition of gay partnerships and extending paternity leave.

While he can argue that unemployment fell to its lowest in nearly two decades under his stewardship, detractors say that has less to do with Jospin's policies than the global economic upswing being experienced at the time.

Apart from being caught trying to hide his Trotskyist past, Jospin is free of the "sleaze" allegations that have plagued French politics for decades.

An official probe into alleged irregularities in the purchase of his holiday home in western France not only proved that all was above board but, according to French media, that Jospin had ended up paying over and above the market price.