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Jospin: Too serious to be president?

Jospin has developed authority as prime minister, but it seems the French look for a little something extra in a president  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

PARIS, France (CNN) -- Americans run for office. The British stand for Parliament. Taking his message to the electors in Charleville Mezieres, close to the French border with Luxembourg, Lionel Jospin campaigned sitting down.

It was perhaps an effort to seem casual, more approachable -- because the common verdict on the man who's been French prime minister these past five years is that he's decent, hard working but definitely less than cuddly.

"Lionel Jospin is somebody who is very strict, serious, honest. But at the same time, he has a tendency to judge everybody, which can be unpleasant," says Jospin biographer Sylvie Maligorne.

"The French are people who are not very obedient, they don't like rules too much, and somebody who puts discipline forward as a personal principle is annoying. And that is his weakness. He should relax a bit, show some warmth."

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There's no doubting Jospin's desire for the top job -- or his eagerness for revenge on President Jacques Chirac, who beat him in 1995. At 64, Jospin knows the loser's political career could well be over.

Jospin has pleased French workers by introducing the 35-hour week, but concerns over the economy have featured high on the campaign's agenda.

And at street level the French seem still undecided whether they would prefer him as president to a 69-year-old clouded by corruption allegations. Indeed many reckoned it a mistake that Jospin called Chirac "old and worn down."

"France is politically correct. So there are things that we can think but can't quite say, especially when we are candidates," says pollster Philip Mechet.

Jospin and Chirac have been forced to "cohabit" as president and prime minister these past five years. The result? One's had the glory, the other's got the kicks for issues like rising crime.

"The chief of government is the person to be blamed for everything. The president is more on the stage to ask for solutions, not to give a solution. So it is the prime minister who is responsible for all the things which are not going well," says political analyst Pascal Boniface.

Then there's the soggy sameness of their programmes, with a Socialist prime minister cautiously insisting his programme for the presidency isn't Socialist. Cartoonists have had fun suggesting he's sold out to capitalists, while Jospin's campaign team explain away the red rose which faded.

"Wanting to be a president you need to address a larger audience than only the Socialists. So you're not supposed to be a Socialist president. You're supposed to be the president of the Republic of France," says Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the Jospin campaign.

It may mean, though, that Jospin's vote in the first round will be eroded by other more vibrant voices on the left.

In the end, the key factor may be whether the French find their prime minister just a little bit too buttoned-up to be president.

As an experienced prime minister, Jospin has developed authority. But it seems the French seek a little more in a president.

The question is whether, in a second-round contest, Jospin can find a style to counter Chirac's potent brand of earthy, amiable hauteur -- and whether Jospin can begin to look as though he is enjoying himself.




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