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French election law forced the nine candidates into a day of public silence Saturday before first-round presidential voting that will select two finalists for a runoff to succeed Francois Mitterrand.

The favorite to lead Sunday's voting was Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, a conservative who has broadened his base from two previous losing campaigns with populist rhetoric and hints of wage increases.There is a close battle for second place between Chirac's fellow conservative, Premier Edouard Bal-ladur, and the nominee of Mit-terrand's Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin.

The patrician Balladur, a former ally of Chirac, held a huge lead just three months ago but proved a less effective campaigner than the gre-garious, high-energy Paris mayor.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, was expected to finish fourth. He hopes to surpass his career-best showing of 14.4 percent in the first round in 1988 with a platform that calls for deportation of 3 million immigrants.

Mitterrand, 78, is ailing with prostate cancer as he nears the end of his 14-year presidency, the longest in French history. He has given only lukewarm support to Jospin, who is struggling to spare the Socialists the embarrassment of a right-vs.-right runoff on May 7.