Ex-lecturer stands for presidency
Coming so soon after the positive remarks on culture and education from President Francois Mitterrand in his recent address to the European Parliament, M Jospin's background suggests he could be a standard-bearer for education.
His presidential prospects have been improved by the drop in popularity of prime minister Edouard Balladur since a scandal over illegal telephone taps involving his interior minister, Charles Pasqua.
At the outset, M Jospin was expected to struggle to beat Jacques Chirac, Balladur's Gaullist rival and mayor of Paris, to second place and the right to challenge the front-running prime minister. But now some of the latest polls put Jospin ahead of Balladur with Chirac trailing at less than 20 per cent.
M Jospin can now hope that the tussle between the two right-wingers will allow him to concentrate on gaining ground with the Left.
After a civil service training and compulsory military service in Karl Marx's home town of Trier, the young Jospin, a schoolteacher's son, became a diplomat. He honed his communication skills at international conferences before settling in Paris to teach economics at a technical university.
The future presidential candidate, now 57, didn't become a paid-up socialist until he was 35. The son of a schoolteacher, he spent his youth reading the works of Sartre. Having flirted with the Communists, he parted company with the far Left in 1956 when the Soviet Union crushed Budapest. Once he had decided to join Francois Mitterrand's Socialist party, his rise within the ranks was steady if not spectacular. By 1979 he was Mitterrand's number two in the party, succeeding him as first secretary and then becoming an MP in 1981. He was re-elected in 1986 and, having presided over a big rise in the Left's vote in his Haute Garonne region, he was chosen by premier Michel Rocard as minister for education in 1988.
During his four-year term, M Jospin put education at the top of the agenda in a way that has not been seen since in France. He managed to increase the department's budget by nearly 30 per cent, the number of students in higher education also rose and there was a major building programme. But in 1993 he suffered a setback: he was defeated at the polls. "Since the electorate does not want me, I'm leaving," he declared.
That might have been the end of Jospin's political career if Jacques Delors had chosen to run for president, or if the socialists had not been so soundly defeated in the June 1994 European elections and taken M Rocard's chances with them.
The former prime minister certainly does not dismiss his colleague's chances of retaining the presidency for the Left. The infighting on the Right is not M Jospin's only advantage, he says. "If Balladur continues making mistakes and sending France to sleep and Jospin, by contrast, includes in his programme elements to show that the socialists recognise their past mistakes, then he can win."
An unlikely victory, maybe, but if Lionel Jospin also harnesses the votes of students and teachers, and can project an image of optimism, for France, he may yet turn the opinion polls on their heads to become President in May.
Robert Evans is Labour member of the European Parliament for London North West and former headteacher of Crane Junior School, Hounslow, from 1990 to 1994.