- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

MANTES-LA-JOLIE, France (Agence France-Presse) Under pressure after slipping badly in opinion polls, French President Jacques Chirac set out to restore momentum to his re-election campaign yesterday with a tough message on crime delivered at a notorious outer Paris suburb.

With three successive surveys showing him losing his lead in the presidential race to his archrival, Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin, Mr. Chirac responded with what his advisers say he is best at some high-profile contact with the people.

Greeted by an enthusiastic mixed-race crowd in the dormitory town of Mantes-La-Jolie, about 40 miles west of the capital, the president staged a brief walk before chairing a panel discussion on the problems of security on public transportation.

The venue was carefully chosen because the mayor is a loyalist from Mr. Chirac's Rally for the Republic (RPR) party, while the town itself has won a fearsome reputation for the incivility and gang violence that are becoming a dominant theme in the campaign for next month's vote.

In a sharp attack on the failure of Mr. Jospin's left-wing government to address the worsening crime figures, Mr. Chirac said, "There is no longer any penal policy, signaled and ordered by the government … and applied uniformly across our territory.

"We must fight against impunity. … It's been imprinted on people's minds that things are like this and there is nothing they can do about it. That's got to change. You cannot just sit by when people are being attacked," he said.

Mr. Chirac, 69, and Mr. Jospin, 64, have shared power in the uneasy relationship known in France as "cohabitation" for the last five years, and are now the front-runners for the presidential election, which takes place in two rounds on April 21 and May 5.

The long-standing leader in the opinion polls, Mr. Chirac has seen his advantage whittled away, and the latest surveys show that Mr. Jospin has established a clear advantage since officially declaring himself a candidate 10 days ago.

According to a survey published yesterday in Liberation newspaper, in the first round of the vote, Mr. Jospin will get 23.5 percent against Mr. Chirac's 21 percent, and in the crucial second round he wins by 52 percent to 48. Two other polls last week also gave him victory, though by smaller margins.

"Jospin … has forged an image as a credible presidential candidate via a campaign that has so far been faultless. He really gives the impression that he wants to win. The result is that he is taking off in the polls while Chirac is bogged down," said commentator Pierre-Luc Seguillon on LCI television.

According to press reports, Mr. Chirac has come under growing pressure from his team to bring his campaign to the public and to take up policy positions that more clearly set him apart from the prime minister.

But the president himself is apparently unruffled by the polls, placing faith in his own widely acknowledged gifts as a communicator.

"A presidential election is a kind of alchemy," Le Monde newspaper quoted him as saying. "It is a relationship which forms between the people and a candidate. It is something that happens. It just clicks."

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