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French left bids for comeback

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The last time the French left held power in Paris, a pressing issue was whether bakers should work at night.

Unfortunately for the Jacobins, French government troops crushed the worker-inspired Paris Commune of 1871 before it had a chance to ram through its legislative reforms.

Now revolutionary fervour is making a tentative comeback in parts of France, with socialist candidates poised to oust conservatives from bastions of power in the country's largest cities.

"Let's change eras," runs the campaign slogan of the socialist who hopes to unseat the conservative incumbent. "Let's be proud of Paris," runs the more restrained retort from his closest challenger on the right. Europe
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France's showcase capital, along with its second city, Lyon, and Toulouse, are a few of the towns in which pollsters say socialists appear set to surf a "vague rose" ("rose wave") to victory.

All politics are, indeed, local, and these elections, involving 35,615 contests staged over two rounds on March 11 and March 18, are no exception.

But with a presidential election set for 2002, these ballots are also being seen as a litmus test of French leanings in the run-up to next year's expected showdown between conservative President Jacques Chirac and his "cohabiting" socialist arch-rival, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Paris itself, where a socialist win would deal a heavy blow to Chirac's prestige as he girds for a grueling race to recapture the Elysée Palace, the official presidential residence.

In Paris, the Mayor heads up a staff of 40,000, commands national media attention and gets ample opportunity to hobnob with international dignitaries passing through the capital.

"The history of Paris is so much associated with Chirac that somewhere, whether consciously or unconsciously, people are likely to interpret the Parisian election as the beginning of the end of an era," said Pierre Giacometti, managing director of the Ipsos polling institute in Paris.

In Paris, the official candidate of Chirac's neo-Gaullist RPR party, Philippe Séguin, is fighting a rear-guard battle against an upstart socialist challenger, Bertrand Delanoë.

'A shortage of notoriety'

Until sharp divisions on the French right boosted his political fortunes, Delanoë had languished in political obscurity, despite spending two decades in socialist politics and, more recently, openly admitting he is gay.

Alluding to Delanoë's virtual invisibility, a party stalwart recently quipped that he suffers from "a shortage of notoriety." Yet in recent weeks, Delanoë has eclipsed Séguin in the polls. He currently enjoys a 65 percent popularity rating.

As Paris mayor himself from 1977 -- the year Parisians began electing a mayor to the capital's 20 arrondissements -- until 1995, when he was elected president, Chirac used the capital's City Hall as a staging ground for his national ambitions.

But his conservative successor, incumbent mayor Jean Tiberi -- a man Chirac helped groom for the job -- has been so compromised by the whiff of alleged corruption emanating from the Hôtel de Ville, Paris's City Hall, that he was snubbed by his own party for the mayoral nomination.

The humiliation was compounded when Tiberi and the Green candidate for Mayor, Yves Contassot, were left off the invitation list for a televised debate between Delanoë and Seguin, a highly choreographed affair held last week at the studios of French TV station Canal Plus.

The French left, Giacommeti said, has shown a steady advance at the polls in recent years, winning six arrondissements in local elections in Paris in 1995.

But until now, that advance has not translated into a governing majority. Even while Francois Mitterand burnished France's socialist credentials on the national stage through the 1980s and early 1990s, Paris remained firmly in the grip of the Gaullists, the bourgeois tenor of its politics set by Chirac and his acolytes.

Pascal Perrineau, of the Paris-based Centre for the Study of French Political Life (CEVIPOF), said French conservatives are still suffering from their setback in 1997, when Chirac, hoping to shore up his political base, called early parliamentary elections.

The move proved a grave miscalculation, when the socialists swept to victory, bringing Jospin into an uneasy "cohabitation" with the Gaullist president.

Since then, scandals have piled up on both right and left.

Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of the late president, was held in jail recently amid suspicions of arms trafficking and corruption tied to Africa. Tiberi, meanwhile, is tainted by suggestions of financial illegalities at City Hall while Chirac himself is implicated in an illegal funding scam dating back to his days as mayor.

Former Socialist foreign minister Roland Dumas and six others are facing charges of benefiting from commissions paid out in a 16 billion franc ($2.08 billion) contract for the sale of six frigates to Taiwan.

Perrineau said that while French voters tended not to distinguish between right and left where scandal is concerned, they felt a general "malaise" with the conservatives, seen as antiquated and corrupt and as being "out of breath."

"We shouldn't say that Paris is the only city where this was the case, but in Paris you have the visibility, the prestige," Perrineau said.

"In terms of good political health, the left is today in much better shape than the right … the right is a broken mirror today."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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Office of the French President (in French)
French government (in French)
French Socialist Party (in French)
Official Web site of Bertrand Delanoë (in French)
RPR (in French)
Web site of Philippe Séguin (in French)
Official Paris City site (in French)
Official Web site of Jean Tiberi (in French)
French Green Party (in French)
Yves Contassot on Web TV (in French)

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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