France Heading Right

April 23, 1995

French presidential elections will give that nation the most undividedly conservative government it has had since World War II. In the first round today, voters will pare a field of nine candidates down to two, with the run-off to be held May 7.

In a final public opinion polls last Sunday, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac led with 26 percent of the vote, followed by the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, with 20 percent and Prime Minister Edouard Balladur with 16 percent.

Both Mr. Chirac and Mr. Balladur are from the neo-Gaullist party, Rally for the Republic (RPR). Either could pick up most of the other's votes to defeat the lackluster Mr. Jospin in the second round -- barring a last-minute blockbuster event.

Mr. Balladur was the nonpolitical technocrat that the Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, put in charge of conservative government to bar Mr. Chirac's ambitions. Mr. Balladur became the surprise favorite in the early polls, but scandals of judicial tampering to protect his political allies cut him down to size. There are whispers, too, about Mr. Chirac's relations with government contractors, but so far he has not been hurt.

Mr. Chirac, mayor of Paris since 1977, is a consummate machine politician and patronage dispenser, whom the late President Georges Pompidou called "my bulldozer." He was a conservative on the model of Charles de Gaulle: statist, centrist, bureaucratic, nationalistic. But he is ideologically flexible. In recent days, some of Mr. Balladur's supporters have defected to Mr. Chirac.

A RPR victory would give that party control not only of the powerful seven-year presidency but a National Assembly majority, the cabinet and most regional and major local governments. Mr. Mitterrand's imminent departure after 14 years the presidency will sweep away the cobwebs of a musty socialism the French people have long-since repudiated.

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