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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 23:57 GMT 00:57 UK
Bayrou leaves voters to their own ideas
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris Correspondent

France's "third man", the centrist Francois Bayrou, was enjoying his moment in the spotlight on Wednesday, after his disappointment on Sunday when he failed to reach the second round of the presidential race, despite gaining an impressive 18% of the vote in the first round.

Francois Bayrou

As the nation waited eagerly for his press conference - broadcast live on national TV - to announce which of the remaining two candidates the centrist would support, there was a surprise in store - and an unexpected sting in the tail.

Mr Bayrou said bluntly that he would back neither the right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy nor the Socialist Segolene Royal, as neither had the right answers for France, adding that he had even refused to take their phone-calls on Monday, despite offers of ministerial posts for his UDF party's MPs from Ms Royal.

Ms Royal would do the economy no good in a time of crisis for France, the 55-year-old said, while her ideas about relying on the state to solve the country's problems would only make them worse.

Difficult decision

However, the usually mild-mannered centrist saved the real sting in the tail for the man who is currently odds-on favourite to win the election, Mr Sarkozy.

"Because of his close links to big business and with France's media barons, and thanks to his taste for intimidation and threat," Mr Bayrou said, "Mr Sarkozy will concentrate power like never before. And because of his temperament, he risks aggravating already deep social divides in France."

Nicolas Sarkozy
Mr Sarkozy will concentrate power like never before
Francois Bayrou

Those reading between the lines might suspect that Mr Bayrou is more likely to vote for Ms Royal in the next round, even as he continued to criticise her economic manifesto for France, which includes more state spending and a hike in the minimum wage, as well as an extension of the 35-hour working week.

And perhaps Mr Bayrou had half an eye on a later goal - the 2012 presidential elections - as he announced that he would be founding his own new centrist party, to be known as the Democratic Party, to capitalise on the clear support shown for his ideas.

Mr Bayrou may also be hoping to gain many more seats in the upcoming Parliamentary elections in June than he did with the old centre-right UDF party.

But in the meantime, that leaves his supporters with a difficult decision to make ahead of the 6 May final round.

Crucial votes

Frederic de Gournay, a mathematics lecturer at Versailles University, helped campaign on behalf of Mr Bayrou's UDF and says he has already made up his mind.

I will look at the other two and see whether they listen to his ideas in the rest of their campaign and take them up
Diane Dakena
Bayrou supporter

"We fought against this left-right divide, so he was correct not to support either of the candidates today. Francois Bayrou has been very honest, and we will carry on fighting for our ideas," he told the BBC.

"Though in the next round, I will support Segolene Royal. I think Sarkozy is a problem, and that makes me want to vote for Ms Royal."

Another supporter, Diane Dakena, who is currently looking for a job, says she has not yet made up her mind.

"I am glad Bayrou did not tell us which way to vote, because his voters are not his property, and they come from very different backgrounds, so it is hard for him to say which candidate to go for.

"And it is in line with his wish to be independent of the two major parties, and to create a real alternative choice for France's citizens," she believes.

Segolene Royal
Bayrou's comments may lead some supporters to vote for Ms Royal

"So I think we have to look at how the two candidates take up his ideas, but I am hesitating as to how to vote in the next round. I do want to vote, but a spoiled ballot paper isn't recognised as a vote in France. So I will look at the other two and see whether they listen to his ideas in the rest of their campaign and take them up."

So now, the fierce fight between left and right for Mr Bayrou's voters will continue, with both Mr Sarkozy and Ms Royal already tacking towards the centre to win those crucial votes.

The campaign is likely to get dirtier in this second half, with the left bringing up fresh questions about Mr Sarkozy's temperament and suitability to govern, and warning of deep social unrest should he become President.

The two candidates will go head to head in a live televised debate next Wednesday, which may help some undecided voters make their choice.

Opinion polls show a slight majority of Bayrou voters may support the right - some 54% in the last poll, versus 46% for Segolene Royal - though perhaps after Francois Bayrou's outspoken attack on Mr Sarkozy, some may change sides.

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