Mon, Aug 21, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Dozens get ready to contest French presidential race

AFP , PARIS

French Socialist leader Segolene Royal smiles to her followers in Dijon on Saturday.

PHOTO: EPA

From anti-globalization icon Jose Bove to the far-right firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, dozens of hopefuls on left and right are lining up to join the race for France's presidential election next April.

The plethora of would-be candidates has raised fears of a repeat of 2002 when Le Pen squeezed past the Socialist Lionel Jospin to the second round, shocking Europe.

For the Socialist Party (PS) -- which was forced to rally behind President Jacques Chirac to bar the road to Le Pen, handing the incumbent 82 percent of the second round vote -- 2002 has become a symbol for humiliating defeat.

The topsy-turvy outcome was largely attributed to the record number of candidates that year: 16 in the first round, split equally between left and right.

Though many of them had tiny support bases, their presence skewed the result because French voters used the first round to cast protest votes -- on the far-right or -left -- with the expectation of siding with one of the mainstream contenders in the run-off.

Next year looks set to pulverize the record of 2002, with some 40 would-be candidates already in the fray -- though not all will gather the 500 signatures from elected officials they need in order to run.

Declared candidates this time include again the 78-year-old Le Pen, who received a boost following last year's riots in predominately immigrant suburbs and whom polls credit with up to 15 percent of voting intentions.

On the left, Bove and Arlette Laguiller, a veteran Trotskyist leader who is running for a fifth time, are among the radicals set to contend alongside the mainstream PS, Green Party and Communist Party.

The PS will choose its own flag-bearer later this year with front-runner Segolene Royal set to battle it out with party heavyweights Laurent Fabius, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Jack Lang.

Wary of divisions in his own camp, PS leader Francois Hollande -- himself a possible candidate -- wrote to 5,000 party members asking them not to endorse outsiders, a move slammed by far-left parties as a "assault on democracy."

But most acknowledge a fragmented left would stand little chance against the center-right, where Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has emerged as the clear favorite over Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Polls consistently suggest that Royal is the only candidate capable of beating Sarkozy in a run-off.

However Alain Krivine, leader of the Revolutionary Communist League, said he still hoped the far-left would be able to rally around a single figure to run in addition to the Socialist candidate.

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