- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

PARIS The outcome of France's presidential election is wide open because of the volatility of the electorate and the high number of expected absentions, pollsters warned last week as the campaign wound down.
With surveys showing that 30 percent of voters will not turn out for today's first round, and a similar figure unsure of their choice, attempts to predict the result are futile, they said.
"The electorate is so fickle," said Jerome Sainte-Marie of the BVA Institute, a market and opinion research organization. According to Philippe Mechet of SOFRES, the world's No. 3 television-audience measurement group, "the public no longer has party loyalties, and the campaign failed to motivate them."
It means that though incumbent President Jacques Chirac, 69, and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, 64, are odds-on to advance to a second-round vote on May 5, the outcome may hold surprises.
"For the first time in the Fifth Republic, a scant third of the voters will choose the two favorites," said Francois Bayrou, candidate of the center-right Union for French Democracy (UDF).
"That means we have two-thirds of the voters plus the abstainers who do not agree with what Chirac and Jospin stand for. It is extremely significant a big punishment vote is being prepared," he said.
As the weekend neared, the focus was on third-ranking Jean-Marie Le Pen, 73, candidate and founder of the far-right National Front (FN), who saw his ratings inch up to around 14 percent in the campaign's final week, just four points behind Mr. Jospin.
But though all eyes in France may be on the presidential contest, how much power the winner will wield depends on the results of a different election in June.
Under France's peculiar constitution, a president may enjoy the near-kingly status of a Charles de Gaulle and a Francois Mitterrand in his prime, or he can be reduced to the ineffectual symbol of sovereignty that Jacques Chirac has been for the past five years.
It all hangs on the National Assembly, whose makeup will be decided in a two-round election on June 9 and 16.
With a majority in the assembly that supports the president, he can appoint a prime minister and Cabinet of his own liking, and then use his powers to shape policy and the country's future.
If the parliament is dominated by his opponents, a president's powers are circumscribed. Then the country enters a period of "cohabitation" in which prime minister and president are of different political stripes.
There have been three periods of "cohabitation" since Mr. De Gaulle set up the Fifth Republic in 1958.
These were 1986-1988, when Mr. Chirac was prime minister under Mr. Mitterrand, a Socialist; 1993-1995, when Edouard Balladur was prime minister, also under M. Mitterrand; and from 1997 to the present, when the Socialist Lionel Jospin has been prime minister under Mr. Chirac, of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR).

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