Valéry Giscard d'Estaing

In last week's first-round French general elections, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing trailed leftist candidate François Mitterrand by 10.5 percentage points, but established himself as the man most centrist voters will gravitate to in the May 19 runoff. It has been a difficult course for Giscard, a man battling his own images. As France's finance minister under both de Gaulle and Pompidou, he has to tread a narrow political path. He must avoid identification with Gaullism, an idea whose time has gone (and whose candidate ran a poor third), without alienating the Gaullists whose votes Giscard needs.

Giscard must also avoid being blamed for France's current rampaging inflation, and he has to overcome a not altogether unjust reputation as an austere, aloof aristocrat. He has gone to great lengths in his campaigning to appear to be just one of the garçons, making a point of wearing casual sweaters at public appearances, playing a little ostentatious soccer and sprinkling his entourage with shapely young women wearing tight "Giscard to the Helm" T-shirts.

At 48, Giscard is relatively young for a French presidential candidate, with an attractive wife, Anne-Aymone, and four photogenic children, the oldest of whom is 20. He skis, plays polo, hunts and has even tried writing a novel. So the stage is set for a triumph of vigorous youth à la Kennedy—if the French voters cooperate.

Son of a prominent French financier and economist, Giscard was educated at elite schools including the École Polytechnique. With time out to serve as a tank crew man during World War II, he has charged straight for the top. "I greatly admire men that are very different—Franklin Roosevelt, Chancellor Adenauer," Giscard said recently, pausing before adding, "And great French statesmen—Bonaparte, of course."

Giscard's devotion to economics has shaped his public personality. Before his recent humanizing approach, his speeches often seemed to be endless streams of statistics and percentages. His jazzier new personality may have given the still basically conservative Giscard all the charisma he needs.

"France is just like all girls," says a veteran French politician. "They like to go out and be seen with the pretty boy, but it's the serious one they bring home."

François Mitterrand

Socialist leader François Mitterrand, 57, has the qualities that the French admire: he is tough, resourceful and above all pragmatic. But though he emerged as top vote-getter, the perversities of coalition voting quickly made him the underdog in the runoff. His working relationship with the French communists has earned him criticism as a "Red threat" and he has not, in fact, been aligned with France's ruling party for 17 years. Yet Mitterrand has managed to squirm through the tortuous channels of French politics, using a combination of persistence and opportunism. One of seven children of a railroad stationmaster in western France, Mitterrand grew up in a bourgeois, Catholic environment. He was trained as a lawyer and journalist, but World War II intervened. It was a mixed curse for Mitterrand, for while he was wounded and captured by the Germans in 1940, his subsequent escape and work with the Résistance became a political asset. (He also met his wife, Danielle, during the war. They married in 1944 and have two sons, Jean-Christophe, a journalist, and Gilbert, a law professor.)

After the Liberation, Mitterrand took a job with de Gaulle's provisional government in 1944 before winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 1946. Between 1947 and 1958, Mitterrand was a minister 11 times, including veterans' affairs, justice and the interior.

After de Gaulle returned to power, Mitterrand dared to criticize the general, which exasperated de Gaulle enough that at one point he turned to the Socialist leader and said, "Be patient. Your turn will come."

Mitterrand's turn almost came in 1965, when he forced de Gaulle into a runoff in a near upset election. Since then he has bided his time with cool calculation, leading the Socialist bloc in the National Assembly, polishing his golf and Ping Pong games and living quietly in his Paris town house on the Left Bank and an 18th century home in Hossegor in southwestern France.

"He never lets himself go," one of Mitterrand's sisters said of him recently. "He knows how to dominate himself."