It will be a small miracle if France emerges in working political shape from its forthcoming round of major elections: a presidential race followed double-quick by general elections to parliament. The two-part battle has all the makings of a gala draw of the Loterie Nationale. But strange things happen. Could the left's Lionel Jospin be holding the right numbers?
Holding the two elections in rapid succession is a novel situation for France. There is nothing to be gained from winning one and losing the other, which would merely maintain the fudge at the pinnacle of power that has blurred French government for many years. So the goal for the two leading protagonists - Jospin, the prime minister, and Jacques Chirac, the president - must be to carry both major polls. Only the double will terminate a system of "cohabitation" at the top between left and right, which has skewed and damaged the French system of government.
Such being the stakes, it would be a travesty if President Chirac were to win re-election. The first round of voting for president starts on 21 April, with a run-off on 5 May. Chirac's main reason for wanting to stay in office - after seven aimless years there - is that he loves it. He talks of his "passion" for France and for being president. As a powerful campaign theme, this may sound a little wanting, but given the decades he has spent at or near the summit of government - beginning as prime minister way back in 1974 - his sincerity in the matter seems beyond question.
However, Chirac has undermined the presidency since he entered the Elysee palace in 1995. In addition, the fractured conservative forces that more or less favour him, often grudgingly, look ill placed to win the general election on 9 and 16 June.
For a president to exercise the rich fullness of presidential power in France, the National Assembly must be on his side. When it isn't, the prime minister - Jospin has held the post for the past five years - runs the country.
As the presidential campaign comes to the wire, Chirac and Jospin are neck and neck in the opinion polls. If Jospin has a slight advantage, it is not in the presidential race, but in the overall tableau. The Socialist prime minister seems the more likely to be able to follow up a presidential triumph with victory for his side in the elections to parliament, where the left at present has a thumping majority.
Being at the head of a firmly united Socialist Party will help Jospin. But to get from here to there, Jospin requires everything in the maelstrom of campaigning to fall perfectly into place - until the second big election is over.
Chirac appears to sense that there is a place for miracles. To squeeze through, he is counting on "alchemy", his term for some warm and mystical oneness he believes he shares with the French people. He is simply more likeable, he says, than the stiff Jospin. Indeed, at 69, he slaps backs better. He has easier contact with the populace than Jospin, whose voice often has the argumentative tone of a trade union negotiator.
That said, my dictionary defines alchemy as a speculative medieval science aimed at transmuting base metals into gold. And Chirac most definitely has a hoard of base metals to work from, starting with his refusal (recently upheld by France's constitutional court) to testify before judges on any personal part he may have had in municipal corruption in Paris during the two decades he ran the capital as mayor. Others have been going to jail over this saga of bribery and vote-rigging.
One wonders, therefore, if the campaigning Chirac misses the humour in his demands for "zero impunity" - the French slant on zero tolerance - in combating crime and delinquency. He twins security with his passion for France as the thrust of his re-election campaign, laying the blame for rising crime squarely on Jospin, whom he calls naive on law and order. Giving further bite to his alchemy is a pledge to cut French income tax by one-third over five years (the length of his new term, should he win it). Although the airy promise on taxes amounts to a threat to the national exchequer that even George Bush might think twice about, it is unwise to underestimate the glad-handing appeal of "Uncle Jacques". When Chirac has the stomach for it, he is a fearsome candidate.
Curiously - and to Jospin's deep dismay - three in four French voters say they can't see much difference between the pair of them in policy terms. Popular apathy over the campaign starts here. The conservative Chirac and the Socialist Jospin have, in fact, been slugging it out in poisoned cohabitation for the past five years, obstructing each other, sniping at each other and making unduly hard work of government. So where is the novelty in their current struggle?
Indeed, when it comes to issues, just about the most exciting question in this French presidential race has been whether that old devil of the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, will be free to wave his forked tail. Le Pen, running third in opinion polls with a good 10 per cent of the first-round vote, has thumped up against candidacy rules. Right up to last week's deadline, he confessed he was short of the number of signatures of elected officials who are needed to sponsor a presidential candidacy. Either to fire interest in his anti-immigrant, anti-Europe campaign, or to plead a desperate case, Le Pen accused Chirac of trying to keep him out of the race by warning off potential sponsors. Whatever Le Pen's political stance, the election would have been embarrassingly flawed had he been barred. At the final bell, he squeaked through.
Jospin, the initiator of the 35-hour working week, may abhor the political blur in French minds between himself and Chirac, but he is partly to blame. "My inspiration is socialist," he announced at the outset of his presidential campaign, "but the programme I propose to the country is not socialist." Rather, he aimed to be a man of his time. Modern. Sounds Blairish? Jospin, in fact, spends much time putting political distance between himself and Tony Blair. He is determined to stay on the left, he says. The market is not his god (though he hasn't shrunk from privatising and has probably done more of it than the right did). But he also knows where the centre ground is and he needs to take some of it to win the presidency. Two of his top lieutenants, the current and former finance ministers Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, are free-marketeers able to win over French business.
Jospin's response to Chirac's alchemy is a promise to be "a different kind of president". This is the message of his campaign, the motto written in big letters at his election meetings: Presider Autrement. It serves both as a put-down of Chirac's aimless time in office and as a pledge to restore the power and responsibility of the damaged presidency.
Do the French get it? It does sound a little abstruse as booming campaign promotion - but typically Jospin for that. The assets with which he is mostly credited make an even drier motto: competence, integrity, authority.
In the general election afterwards, both Jospin and Chirac hope that a presidential victory will drive voters to give them the tool that a responsible president most needs - a loyal majority in parliament.
This might seem a natural follow-up move by voters. The big snag is that the French have grown perversely accustomed to cohabitation and seem to like the idea of setting president against prime minister to prevent a concentration of power. I suspect, however, that the public has finally grown aware of the political blockage this causes, having witnessed, over the past five years, a conservative president baying from the sidelines to counter a left-wing government, with president and prime minister scarcely able to conceal their mutual contempt.
The worst result of these consecutive French polls would be a renewal of the present blockage. The next worst result would be a switch of presidents accompanied by a switch of parliamentary majorities, with President Jospin kicking his heels in the Elysee palace while the right gets on with governing. In either event, the case will be urgent for a rapid overhaul of France's constitution. It certainly needs it. Otherwise, wish Jospin well.