It’s election year in Australia, but for international election watchers the most interesting place this year will be France. The first round of the French presidential election is to be held on 22 April, with a run-off between the top two candidates a fortnight later. (Legislative elections will follow in June.)

The French embarrassed themselves at the last presidential election, in 2002, when the far-right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen won through to the second round (in which he was duly crushed by incumbent Jacques Chirac).

Yesterday’s Australian published a report from the Sunday Times suggesting it could happen again – “Has Mr Le Pen’s moment finally come?”

But the answer is no. Le Pen got into the second round last time by edging out Socialist Lionel Jospin, by 0.7% (Adam Carr has the figures). But this year’s Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, has done a much better job at uniting the centre-left’s forces. The Radical Party and Jean-Pierre Chevenement’s MRC, which ran their own candidates in 2002, have both reached agreements to support Royal.

Le Pen’s plan this time is to beat the centre-right’s candidate and face Royal in the second round. He’s right to think that would give him a better second round result than last time (although he would still lose by a huge margin), but to do that he has to get ahead of interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is unopposed for endorsement as candidate of the ruling UMP.

Sarkozy is a wily operator, whose tough positions on crime and immigration have stolen much of Le Pen’s thunder. Although he is regarded with scepticism by much of his own party’s elite, they are rallying behind him as their best hope for victory – much as the Socialists have with Royal. The contest between them, which the polls say is neck-and-neck, is going to be fascinating.

Meanwhile, Chirac himself is yet to announce that he will not stand for a third term, but this is regarded as a formality. In comments to the foreign diplomatic corps last Friday he seemed already focused on his place in history, defending his decision to oppose the invasion of Iraq – which, as The New York Times puts it, “some French political analysts call the high point of his foreign policy”.

Peter Fray

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