A race in France

Print edition : April 13, 2002

A massacre near Paris becomes the pivot in an otherwise dull presidential election campaign in France.

IT was 1-10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 27, when the meeting broke up. Municipal councillors from the working class suburb of Nanterre, just outside Paris, were talking to their constituents in a series of pre-election consultations.

President Jacques Chirac (left) and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Opinion polls have given both leaders even chances in the second round run-off elections.-PATRICK KOVARIK/POOL/AP

As people moved towards the cloakroom to pick up their coats, Richard Durn, a 33-year-old unemployed man, suddenly opened fire simultaneously from two automatic guns he carried, taking careful aim each time. Within minutes eight municipal councillors lay dead, while 19 persons were wounded, at least five of them seriously.

As he was overpowered, Durn, known to have a history of psychological instability, shouted, "Kill me, kill me." Two days later, the gruesome story got another twist when Durn leapt to his death out of a window of the police headquarters in Paris where he was being questioned.

The incident and its tragic aftermath, which the press has dubbed the Nanterre Massacre, has shaken up the French and marked a dramatic turning point in an otherwise dull and uneventful electoral campaign, suddenly making crime and insecurity the single most important and perhaps the only issue of public concern in France.

The Conservative President Jacques Chirac and the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin are locked in a duel for the presidency, with polls giving them even chances in the second round run-off scheduled two weeks after the April 21 polling. Rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly vitriolic with Jospin pouring scorn on Chirac by describing him as "old and worn out". The killings in Nanterre gave Chirac a godsend opportunity to criticise the way in which Jospin and his Cabinet deal with public security and rising crime rates.

The 69-year-old Chirac, who is fighting for his political and personal survival (failure to win the presidency would leave him open to prosecution in a string of corruption cases dating from 1974 when he was the Mayor of Paris to the mid 1990s when he was elected President), has lambasted the Prime Minister for an 8 per cent increase in the crime rate. He has also alleged that Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant purposely delayed informing him of the Nanterre killings so that Jospin could become the first electoral candidate to visit the scene of the tragedy.

"This incident could cost Lionel Jospin his bid for the presidency. Ever since the incident took place, Chirac has been hammering on about how the government has been soft on crime, particularly juvenile crime. Now there is an inquiry under way to ascertain the circumstances in which the killer Durn committed suicide. Obviously the police are being criticised and by extension Jospin's government is picking up quite a bit of flak," says political writer Gerard Dupuy.

There is outrage in the Socialist camp at Chirac's flagrant exploitation of what Jospin called "an isolated case of madness". Several left-wing political commentators have reacted sharply to Chirac's attempts to play on the public's feeling of insecurity and use the Nanterre episode to undermine his rival's credibility. "The country's crime fighting and internal security policy should not be based on isolated cases such as the Nanterre Massacre. The entire electoral campaign is turning around it and the ease and shamelessness with which politicians play upon public fears is itself frightening," Jean-Michel Helvig wrote in the left wing daily Liberation.

While Chirac and Jospin are slugging it out in the ring, other candidates are finding it difficult to get there. In order to become eligible to contest, a person needs the backing of 500 local officials. In the past, the names of the signatories were kept a secret and the officials had no problem cautioning extremist hopefuls such as Jean Marie Le Pen of the anti-foreigner National Front. Now that the names of the sponsors are posted on the Internet for all to see, Mayors and other elected officials are exercising a greater level of caution than before about whom they sponsor. Le Pen still needs 27 signatures to qualify and may not make it to the final list. He is tipped to win about 10 per cent of the vote in the first round, a score that could damage President Jacques Chirac's prospects. The Front has accused Chirac and his political supporters of attempting to torpedo Le Pen's presidential bid and the extreme right leader has threatened to topple the incumbent by asking his supporters to vote for Jospin in the second round.

Le Pen is not the only candidate in limbo. Several others, including former Ministers Charles Pasqua, Alain Madelin and Jean Pierre Chevenement have yet to deposit their sponsorship signatures before the country's Constitutional Council.

IN a campaign marked by public boredom and apathy, a striptease artist, a pro-cannabis postman and a tiny dog called Sausage have provided some much-needed comic relief. With a total of 50 candidates in the fray, the foregone conclusion is that Chirac and Jospin will lead the pack in the first round, and play the run-off on May 5.

"I do not subscribe to this hypothesis at all. My candidate is strong and it is possible that he will sneak in from behind to take the second place. A Chirac-Chevenement second round duel cannot be ruled out," writer and politician Max Gallo, who is Chevenement's campaign manager, told this correspondent.

Indeed Chevenement, a former Interior Minister, is the most interesting "third candidate" to emerge from the campaign. "He is a man of integrity, of principle, clarity and intelligence. What we are proposing is a return to republican values that would place the individual at the centre of political and social debate," Gallo said.

Chevenement, who has twice resigned from senior Cabinet posts citing differences with the government, is respected for his personal honesty. However, his attempt to occupy the centre and woo voters from both the Right and the Left has left many voters suspicious. His anti-European stance too has affected his campaign. "There is something regressive, old-fashioned about him that puts me off. Agreed that he is principled, intelligent and all that. Yet, someone who so desperately wishes Europe had never happened, harps on the issue of France's lost sovereignty and evidently wants to put the clock back, gives me the shivers. I want to progress, not regress," Janine Krause, a left-wing activist, said.

If Chevenement's star is on the decline, that of Arlette Laguillere, who represents workers' rights, has been on the rise, with an opinion poll crediting her with 10 per cent of the first-round vote. Laguillere, who is making her fourth bid for the presidency, has changed neither style nor speech for the past 25 years. "I admit she is not brilliant. I would even go so far as to say she is a bit simplistic. However, she is consistent, honest, dogged. She is an anachronism, a throwback to the pro-worker, anti-capitalist sloganeering of the 1950s and I like that slightly 'retro' touch about her. In any case, the first round allows you to express displeasure at the mafia dons who govern us and encourage those we find have some saving grace. Which is why, I shall vote for Arlette Laguiller in the first round. It's for the second round that I feel stumped. I cannot bear either Chirac or Jospin. I have never abstained in my life. I am sitting upon an existential dung heap," explains Luc Nahon, a schoolteacher.

This election presents a departure from the norm of presidential polls in France in that voters will choose the head of state for a five-year term instead of seven years as in the past. Legislative elections will follow in June. The French thus hope to put an end to "cohabitation", the unique power-sharing formula under which the country's President and Prime Minister can belong to conflicting political parties.

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