It's politics à la carte as French contest goes to the wire

NICOLAS Sarkozy, the conservative candidate for president, suggests that paedophilia is most likely a genetic flaw; Segolene Royal, the Socialist, does not seem to know that Taliban extremists are no longer running the government of Afghanistan; and on the far right Jean-Marie Le Pen recommends masturbation instead of free condoms to meet the sexual desires of youngsters.

With a week to go before the first round of France's presidential election, the campaign has entered a phase of improvisation and even silliness that reflects the absence of any single defining issue and a frenzied competition to win over the country's large bloc of undecided voters.

Every twist seems important. Monday was the "official" opening of the French political campaign, in which all 12 candidates put up their campaign posters across the country and began broadcasting short prepared free spots, of exactly the same length, on state-run television and radio stations.

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But a record 42% of French voters say they are undecided or can still change their minds, according to a recent survey by the CSA polling institute published in Le Parisien. Among voters under the age of 30, the percentage is 56%.

"We're in an era where voters are more and more like shoppers," said Roland Cayrol, the director of CSA. "They're comparing personalities and promises the way they compare products in a supermarket. The 'look' and the packaging is important. That means anything can change their vote - from a defining event in the country to a candidate's absurd declaration."

All the top candidates have committed gaffes, but none of them so badly as to have ruined their chances in a volatile race, pollsters say.

Sarkozy, the front-runner, seems to be benefiting from the uncertainty. According to political analysts, his campaign seems more disciplined and less gaffe-riddled than those of the other main candidates.

The former interior minister continues the struggle to soften the law-and-order image he earned in his nearly four years in office. So on a campaign stop to a Reblochon cheese-making factory in the Alps in late March, he did something he does not normally do, at least in public. He flirted.

He enthusiastically kissed an apron-clad female employee on both cheeks, wrapping his arm around her shoulder.

"I'm kissing you, eh," Sarkozy said. Posing for the cameras, he joked, "Look how good-looking we are!" and "My heart is beating!"

Addressing one of the journalists in attendance, Sarkozy joked, "This is your wife?" as he kissed the worker once more. "Oh, I have a hard job!" he said.

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But Sarkozy's angry, tough-guy reputation still dogs him. Azouz Begag, who resigned as equal opportunities minister last week, has accused Sarkozy of once threatening to assault him.

Begag recounts an episode, just after the wave of unrest in France's suburbs in late 2005, in which he criticised Sarkozy for using the word "scum" to describe young delinquents. Begag said he received a phone call from Sarkozy, who, enraged, called him a "disloyal bastard", adding, "I'm going to smash your face."

Sarkozy says Begag was lying.

In the Socialist camp, there is a consensus that Royal, who is running second in the polls, has frittered away the advantages that come with running to be the first woman elected president of France. Her critics say she refuses to heed the advice of her advisers and has a penchant for adding new proposals as she goes along.

Eric Besson, her former chief economic adviser, quit over differences with her, then savaged her in a book published weeks later. He described her as making decisions solo, improvising policies without forethought and then portraying herself as the victim of a male-dominated news media to gain an advantage against her opponents.

"I think, in all conscience, that Segolene Royal should not become president of the republic," he wrote. "I do not wish it for my country. I fear it for my children."

Royal has also been criticised for trivialising the issues. At a women's forum sponsored by Elle magazine she announced her three priorities for women: ending violence against women, securing more government aid for pre-school children and putting the remains of Olympe de Gouges, the 18th-century feminist, into the Pantheon, the final resting place of France's great and good. The audience groaned.

During a campaign trip on March 30, Royal announced a new government-subsidised initiative to put unemployed youth to work, only to be attacked by her own camp and the far left for coming up with a warmed-over version of the government's doomed job creation initiative.

Royal has been most gaffe-prone on foreign policy. During a visit to China in January, she visited the Great Wall wearing white, the colour of mourning in China.

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Earlier this month, in discussing the fate of two Frenchmen held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan, she called for UN-imposed penalties for regimes like the Taliban, as if unaware that the Islamic extremists had been ousted from power militarily after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

When the interviewer pointed out that the Taliban were no longer in power, Royal ignored him and moved on.

Francois Bayrou, the contender from the centrist Union for French Democracy party, who is running third in the polls before the first round, has run a largely gaffe-free campaign that has been criticised, however, for its vagueness. He has also been taken to task for portraying himself as a simple working farmer (his website shows him pitching hay on the family farm) when he has been a deputy in parliament for more than two decades.

By contrast, Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who is running in fourth place in the polls, still seems to revel in making headline-grabbing statements.

At the Elle forum he defended his opposition to free condoms for high school students. "For those who are fixated on it, I recommend 'manu militari'," a tongue-in-cheek reference to masturbation. "This is the simplest method."

Now, with the messages of all 12 candidates (from Jose Bove, the pipe-smoking, globalisation-fighting sheep farmer, to Marie-George Buffet, the Communist Party candidate) being broadcast on public television and radio, the campaign is becoming even more diffuse.

A number of the candidates have infused their campaigns with song. Royal has sung "La Marseillaise" at a number of rallies.

A rap song by a group of black supporters of Sarkozy on his website includes the lyrics, "Grosso modo, Sarko is not Quasimodo."

Election need-to-know

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French voters will go to the polls for the first round of the presidential election next Sunday.

If any candidate wins more than 50% of the vote then the contest is over. But if, as is usually the case, no candidate gets more than half the vote then the top two candidates go head-to-head for a second round on May 6.

Under the French constitution, real power lies with the President, who appoints the Prime Minister, can dissolve parliament and commands the armed forces.

The two main candidates are Nicolas Sarkozy, whom the media have dubbed 'Sarko', of the centre-right UMP, and Sgolne Royal, nicknamed 'Sego', of the opposition Socialists. So it's a battle of Sarko vs Sego.

Other main candidates include Franois Bayrou of the centrist UDF, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, right, the leader of the extremist National Front.

Le Pen reached the second round of voting in 2002 in a shock result, defeating the Socialists. It forced many Socialist supporters to vote for the centre-right Jacques Chirac in preference to the hard right.

The contenders are allocated strict limits for party political broadcasts. Each one has 45 minutes of airtime. They can use three types of campaign clip: one-minute, two-and-a-half minutes and five-and-a-half minutes. They have a campaign spending limit of 11m; for the first round. The use of the national flag is banned in campaign material.

Sports stars have been wooed by the two main parties. Tennis star Yannick Noah supports Royal. Meanwhile, Sarkozy can boast the endorsement of former France and Rangers footballer Basile Boli, and ex-Ibrox boss Paul Le Guen. Rangers fans with long memories might wonder whether the endorsement will do much good for Sarkozy - neither Boli or Le Guen made much impact in Glasgow.

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