Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Wednesday, 25 April 2007 17:48 UK

Profile: Francois Bayrou

By Henri Astier
BBC News

During the presidential campaign, Francois Bayrou came to be known as the "third man" of French politics.

Francois Bayrou
Francois Bayrou is still a force to be reckoned with
The centrist candidate, promising to bridge the "prehistoric" left-right divide, surged in opinion polls, which at one point put him neck-and-neck with the Socialist Segolene Royal.

On election night, Mr Bayrou was literally the "third man": he came behind both Ms Royal and the frontrunner, centre-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.

But despite his failure to qualify for the 6 May run-off, as he had hoped, his surprise challenge could have significant effects.

The most immediate is that he is being fervently courted by the two main contenders.

With almost seven million votes to his name (three times his score in the 2002 presidential poll), Mr Bayrou is suddenly receiving calls from his rivals.

"Immediately after the first round, he said his phone was "ringing off the hook", adding that he was not taking any calls.

Later, in a much-awaited speech, he refused to endorse any candidate. He said his voters were "citizens who are free to choose".

Segolene Royal
Segolene Royal believes she can still overtake Mr Sarkozy

Mr Bayrou is no doubt savouring the irony of Mr Sarkozy and Ms Royal - who both shunned the political centre ahead of the vote - portraying themselves as born-again centrists.

But the presidential election has marked a return to the traditional left-right split and Mr Bayrou's voters will have to choose their camp.

How are they likely to vote? During the campaign, Mr Bayrou's "a plague on both your houses" stance gave few clues.

He pleased some on the centre-left by announcing a social-democratic economic programme and accusing Mr Sarkozy of creating a "harsh, violent society".

He pleased some on the centre-right by standing full-square behind fiscal prudence and debt reduction.

Most likely, pollsters say his electorate should be more or less evenly split between the two camps.

But to Mr Bayrou, the 6 May poll is no longer the one that matters most. He is focusing on the June legislative election, where he hopes to capitalise on his popularity to create a new a independent movement in the centre.

Rural roots

Mr Bayrou, 55, has long sought to break the traditional mould of French politics.

The son of a farmer in south-western France, he did not attend an elite school. He studied literature instead, and worked as a teacher while continuing to help his mother on the farm.

He entered politics in the early 1980s, rising through the ranks of the middle-of-the-road UDF party. He served as education minister in centre-right governments between 1993 and 1997.

Mr Bayrou is still a part-time farmer and is arguably the only French presidential candidate who can milk cows and drive a tractor.

A practising Catholic, he married at the age of 20 and has five children.

His background and lack of personal fortune have helped him connect with voters.

Mr Bayrou has also used his farming roots to highlight his non-ideological approach to politics.

He once joked that "plodding along at tractor speed" should become fashionable again in France.

'Variant of the right'

The main plank of Mr Bayrou's election programme was a unity government that included politicians from both the right and the left.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Left is left and right is right, says Nicolas Sarkozy
"Whether you are a socialist or a UMP supporter, you have the same problems as us. Let's solve them together," he has said.

He even suggested that if elected, he might choose a socialist as prime minister.

Established politicians dismissed Mr Bayrou's refusal to choose a clear label as a disingenuous gimmick.

Jack Lang, a former socialist minister and now top aide to Ms Royal, said Mr Bayrou was "a variant of the right".

From the other side of the divide, Mr Sarkozy made the same point.

"All UDF parliamentarians have been elected with votes from the centre and the right," he said.

Following the first round, politicians on both sides have changed their tune, and Mr Bayrou is enjoying his new role as kingmaker.

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