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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 04:06 GMT 05:06 UK
French centre unmoved by debate
By Henri Astier
BBC News, Pau

UDF activists watching the debate at the party HQ in Pau
No-one at Mr Bayrou's Pau HQ was impressed by the debate
The run-up to the second round of the French presidential election has been dominated by a candidate who is no longer in the race.

Centrist leader Francois Bayrou may have failed in his bid to make the left-right divide obsolete by reaching the run-off - but he has succeeded in hogging the limelight.

He is being courted by both Socialist Segolene Royal and her conservative rival Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr Bayrou has endorsed neither, leaving his 6.8m voters to make their own decision in Sunday's poll.

The question on every French mind is - which way will his crucial constituency turn?

Did the televised debate sway many French voters?

A good place to find out is Pau, Mr Bayrou's south-western stronghold.

As two dozen local activists from Mr Bayrou's UDF party gathered at his headquarters in the city to watch Wednesday's debate between Mr Sarkozy and Ms Royal, the atmosphere was downcast but intense.

All were still struggling to accept their hero's defeat and the end of the dream of a sea-change in French politics.

"I don't want a centre-right and I don't want a centre-left, I want a unifying figure who can draw from both," said Florent Sere, a party activist who had come from Bayonne 100km (60 miles) away.

Watching the defectives

The activists found little to choose between two candidates on offer as they watched the debate.

"I'm torn, I really am," Julien Pardon, a 30-year-old salesman from Pau, said.

Map of France showing Pau and Paris

Like almost every person in the room, he is repelled by what he regards as Mr Sarkozy's authoritarianism and fishing for far-right votes.

"His dalliance with the National Front does not suit me at all," Mr Pardon said, to general applause.

But he and many others are also dismayed by Ms Royal's old-left rhetoric, as well as her perceived amateurism and the vagueness of her programme.

After the debate a young woman summed up the general feeling by joking: "Did you prefer Patrick Poivre d'Arvor or Arlette Chabot?" - referring to the two journalists who had moderated the encounter.

In the end, however, many - perhaps as much as a third - of the activists said Ms Royal was the lesser of two evils.

"We must oppose repression," said Vincent Bayou, 24 - meaning Mr Sarkozy. "I will vote for Segolene, holding my nose."

Several agreed glumly that at least she was a tolerant figure and expressed the hope that if elected, her advisers would stop her from wrecking the economy.

'Harmful'

A minority held out no such hope, and were prepared to put their deep distrust of Mr Sarkozy aside.

We must have as many blank votes as possible
Florent Sere
Francois Bayou supporter
"If Segolene is elected it will be a catastrophe," Frederic Jourda, 40, said after listening to both sides.

"She can do much more harm to this country that him."

Sandrine Bernardin, 29, agreed: "The president is in charge of foreign affairs. I don't want to be represented by Segolene Royal at the G8."

But by far the biggest single bloc in the audience was made up of those - about half of the total - who said they would cast a blank vote on Sunday.

"Before the debate I was ready to vote for Segolene," said Vincent Lamarque, 27. "But she was so incoherent on economic issues that I think my vote will be blank."

Regis Laurand, 39, said he would put an invalid "Bayrou" ballot in the envelope.

"We must have as many blank votes as possible," said Florent Sere at the end of the debate. "That way people will understand the centre still exists."

New-found confidence

It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the disaffection of UDF activists.

Most ordinary people who voted for Mr Bayrou are likely to drift back to their original political families in the second round.

UDF activists at the party HQ in Pau
The main argument was about which candidate was worst
A few phone calls suggested that centrist sympathisers who had watched the debate from home in Pau were happier than the party faithful about the choice before them.

Gregory Bonassie, a 23-year-old student, had found Ms Royal much more self-assured than he had expected.

"This confirms me in my readiness to vote for her," he said.

Virginie Plante, 20 - another erstwhile Bayrou voter who watched the debate at home - said she had been "won over" by Ms Royal's robust performance.

Exactly how centrists cast their votes come Sunday is still anyone's guess. Many of them still do not know.

But which ever way they turn, they will do so with little enthusiasm.

The only person who was cheered during the evening at UDF quarters in Pau was neither Mr Sarkozy nor Ms Royal, but the delivery boy who brought the pizzas.


VOTE RESULTS
Who do you think won the debate?
Segolene Royal
 46.70% 
Nicolas Sarkozy
 35.15% 
Neither
 18.15% 
15174 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
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