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Giscard races after votes as lead in polls narrows

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Against a background of huge draping red, white, and blue flags, thunderous applause from a 20,000-strong audience and the thick haze of a protester's smoke bomb, "citizen candidate" Valery Giscard d'Estaing jauntily leaps onto the podium with the confident air of a contender fully caught up with the challenge and excitement of France's presidential campaign trail.

Only his colloquial "Salut Marseille" seems a bit too forced for the astute pinstriped technocrat who has served as president of France for the past seven years and is now energetically seeking a second term.

Giscard, who normally assumes an aloof regal bearing whether speaking on television or dining with foreign dignitaries has always found it difficult to be "one of the people." In recent years, he has been severely criticized by opponents for trying to turn his sejour at the Elysee Palace into a monarchic presidency with a blatant disregard for the country's democratic institutions including the press. This has been illustrated by his unconcerned reaction to the Bokassa diamond affair.

Despite his obvious self-assurance and eloquent speechmaking, Giscard is in trouble. As Giscard the politician, he is now being forced to excel on all fronts to glean as many votes as possible from a strikingly resigned electorate generally disappointed by the lack of new faces on the political scene. Only a few weeks ago, in what looked like a boring replay of the 1974 presidential elections, it was almost a foregone conclusion even among his staunchest critics that Giscard would at a pinch still manage to retain the presidency.

Now people are not so sure. If France's abundant polls are to be believed -- there were no less than five opinion surveys with differing results conducted last week --Giscard has been losing ground steadily. The last poll taken before the April 26 election gave Giscard a narrow 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent lead over Socialist leader Franois Mitterrand.

His main political danger however, does not appear to lie with Mitterrand, a third-time presidential candidate who no longer seems to hold the sort of vigorous inspiration younger voters would have preferred to see, but with Gaullist Jacques Chirac, the ambitious mayor of Paris.

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