In France, moving to middle

Centrist withholds support of presidential candidates tacking to center

April 26, 2007|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS -- France's heated presidential race became a battle for the political center yesterday when Francois Bayrou, whose strong finish in Sunday's first-round vote made him a potential kingmaker, refused to endorse a candidate in the runoff.

At a packed news conference, Bayrou declined to formally ally himself with either Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the rightist Union for a Popular Movement, or Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party.

However, Bayrou sent signals that he prefers Royal.

During the Sunday first-round election, Bayrou finished third, with 18 percent of the ballots, in a field of 12 candidates, giving him the backing of 6.8 million voters. The centrist said yesterday that making an endorsement in the May 6 runoff would amount to betraying his reformist campaign against traditional party machines. He said his voters were free to do as they pleased.

"Let's speak frankly: Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, in the perennial confrontation between the perennial right and the perennial left, will neither of them heal any of [France's] ills," Bayrou said. "In this situation, I will not recommend a vote.

"On the contrary," he added, "I want to guarantee to the French that whichever candidate wins, they will find themselves represented by an opposition power, free and capable of saying yes if the [government's] action is good and no if it is bad."

Bayrou's announcement was a much-awaited development in what is shaping up as France's most significant election in decades, ushering in a new generation of leaders at a time of economic, political and social crisis.

Bayrou's dislike for Sarkozy was evident on the campaign trail. Although Bayrou criticized both contenders yesterday, he was harsher on Sarkozy. He accused the conservative candidate of "a taste for intimidation and menace," and said Sarkozy would "risk aggravating the strains in the social fabric, notably by setting a policy that benefits the richest."

In contrast, he criticized the Socialists' economic program but described Royal as "seeming better-intentioned."

Bayrou told journalists that he had not decided how to vote but said he might express a preference as the campaign evolved.

Bayrou accepted an invitation that Royal made two days ago to hold a public debate with him about the future of France. Bayrou also announced that he would scuttle the party he leads, the Union for French Democracy, and create a Democrat Party, whose ideology would resemble British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party and the Democrats in the United States.

The move would end the longtime center-right alliance between Bayrou's old party and Sarkozy's party.

The Bayrou vote is the key to victory for Sarkozy or Royal. Bayrou said he thought his supporters would divide about evenly between the two camps. Various pundits predict different breakdowns, most of them favorable to Sarkozy, who holds a narrowing lead in the polls.

The latest Ipsos poll shows 39 percent of Bayrou voters supporting Royal in the runoff, 32 percent for Sarkozy and 29 percent undecided or abstaining.

But the poll also predicts Sarkozy beating Royal in the runoff with 53 percent of the vote, suggesting he does not need a majority of the centrist bloc to win.

On the other hand, a poll in Le Figaro newspaper yesterday had Royal rising to 49 percent of the total vote compared with Sarkozy's 51 percent, the closest margin to date.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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