French presidential campaign approaches its final stage

Socialist Segolene Royal introduces herself as a mother of four who has skillfully juggled family and career. Conservative contender Nicolas Sarkozy presents himself as a bold reformer.

The French presidential campaign entered its final phase Monday with a series of carefully choreographed TV and radio spots by candidates pitching themselves to undecided voters  nearly half the French electorate, according to polls. The first round of voting is just two weeks away.

Polls show Sarkozy as front-runner for the April 22 vote, followed by Royal. Francois Bayrou, a candidate pledging to bridge France's traditional left-right divide, is third.

Aside from those three, far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, in fourth place, appears to be the only one of the other 12 hopefuls with a chance of qualifying for the runoff on May 6.

The race between the front-runners is tight, and with so many undecided voters, the outcome is open. A poll published Sunday by the CSA-Cisco agency suggested that 42 percent of French respondents have not yet made their choice.

Many in France no longer feel allegiance to political parties, historically strong in France, and they are uncertain about who has the right answers for France's future after 12 years under conservative President Jacques Chirac.

The campaign is being carefully controlled to make sure that all candidates get airtime. In newscasts, television and radio stations must give equal time to each candidate. As posters were hung up at polling stations Monday, workers were obliged to ensure each candidate had an equal number of posters.

France's audiovisual regulator has allotted each candidate 45 minutes of airtime for publicity spots on public TV and radio channels until April 20 _ two days before the first round, when all candidates must stop their campaigning and no polls can be published.

Each candidate created three spots: a short one lasting 1 minute, another of 2Ѕ minutes, and a third of 5Ѕ minutes.

Royal took a simple approach, addressing voters against a backdrop of blue sky and talking about her background. "I am a woman, a mother of four children, I have my feet on the ground, I am practical, I am a free woman," she said.

Royal's rival Sarkozy steered clear of autobiographical details, focusing in his spot on the main themes of his campaign: employment and immigration.

"Action is my life's passion," said Sarkozy, who pledged to break with policies of the past to resolve chronically high unemployment and better integrate immigrants.

Of the 12 candidates, seven of them have less than 5 percent of support. Candidates who aired spots Monday included Frederic Nihous, a hunter who champions rural traditions; Jose Bove, a farmer-turned-anti-globalization activist; and Philippe de Villiers, a far-right candidate who denounces what he calls the "Islamization of France."

Liberation newspaper complained that France's campaign system, by insisting on perfect equality in airtime, was "absurd," saying it would only confuse undecided voters.

"This big fog broadcast on the airways won't do anything to cut down on the record indecision that is the mark of the 2007 elections," the paper said.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova