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The suspense surrounding France's first-round presidential voting Sunday is not over who will win but who will go down in humiliating defeat.

Jacques Chirac, the energetic conservative mayor of Paris, is considered certain to advance to a two-candidate runoff May 7. He is favored to emerge then as successor to Francois Mitterrand, dying of cancer after 14 years as president.The election drama Sunday lies in the battle to avoid the embarrassment of missing the runoff. Assuming a Chirac triumph, either the patrician prime minister, Edouard Balladur, or the candidate of Mitterrand's once-powerful Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, will be eliminated.

For Balladur, a member of the same conservative party as Chirac, finishing third or worse would culminate one of the most spectacular collapses in modern French politics. Three months ago he led Chirac by 30 percentage points in some polls.

For Jospin, a former education minister who rouses little passion even among supporters, missing the runoff would brand him a symbol of Socialist failure. For a party which has held the presidency since 1981, an all-conservative runoff would be mortifying.

Yet even a Jospin-Chirac runoff may not spark the left-right ideological fire of past elections. Chirac has been trumpeting his social concerns, while Jospin has avoided strident leftist rhetoric - his concept of a bold proposal is reducing the work week from 39 to 37 hours.

The election marks the end of an era in which a Socialist first presided over the growth of the 1980s, then over the country's worst postwar recession. The conservatives, already controlling Parliament, will consolidate their power with a presidential victory and press ahead with the sell-off of state-owned companies and cuts in business taxes to spur growth.