PARIS -- In France's first presidential election since the end of the Cold War, voters are to decide today which two of the nine candidates seeking to succeed President Francois Mitterrand will make it to the decisive runoff vote May 7.
Barring a major upset, the main question is who will come in second behind the front-runner, the conservative mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac.
Two public opinion surveys taken before the end of campaigning on Friday indicated that Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, Mr. Chirac's fellow conservative and former friend, and Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate, were both trailing Mr. Chirac by four percentage points, each with about 20 percent.
On the major issues, the three candidates hold common positions. They have mostly ignored the defense and foreign policy issues that dominated during the Cold War, concentrating instead on ways to make France able to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy.
All three support the need to lower the taxes and charges that employers must pay on salaries to preserve the social and medical benefits of the welfare state, but that also make it difficult for the French economy to create jobs.
Mr. Mitterrand, 78 and suffering from prostate cancer at the end of a 14-year tenure, has been only a bystander in a campaign that has seldom mentioned him and has not produced a single debate.
What little drama there has been in the first part of the race has been in the struggle that saw Messrs. Chirac and Balladur, both members of the Rally for the Republic party, flip-flop as front-runner in the last eight weeks.
"The tale of friendships betrayed, agreements broken and daggers drawn interests the press more than the real issues, and it's been hard for me to get a hearing," Mr. Jospin said in an interview recently.
Crisscrossing the country over the past two years in his third quest for the presidency, Mr. Chirac, 62, has used a populist style to convey a message that he understands the need for change and can bring it about.
"It's the system that is at fault," he said recently. "Speculation and safe financial investments have been systematically favored over labor and investment, and in five years, the phenomenon of outcasts has grown enormously. In Paris, there weren't all these beggars that you see today."
Mr. Chirac, a prime minister in the 1970s and '80s, and the other candidates have concentrated on proposals to create more jobs.
Mr. Chirac would do it by paying businesses to hire the long-term unemployed with money that would have gone toward unemployment benefits, but he has never explained how the government would finance the extra costs of the program.
Mr. Jospin, 57, is the youngest of the three leading candidates and, unlike the other two, has inherited no property and says he lives off his salary. He hopes to be the standard-bearer of the battered French left in the second round, with the slogan of "A more just France."
Mr. Balladur, a patrician 65-year-old functionary who wears suits tailored in London and occasionally wears red socks made in Rome for cardinals, is fighting an image of fustiness by surrounding himself with young people at campaign rallies. He would also provide government incentives to encourage businesses to hire the jobless.