Royal, Sarkozy pin hopes on defeated centrist

French presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal waited anxiously on Wednesday for a defeated centrist candidate, whose votes could tip next week’s run-off ballot, to reveal his intentions.

Francois Bayrou, who was to address a much-awaited news conference later in the day, has come under intense pressure to throw the weight of his seven million voters behind either right-winger Sarkozy or socialist Royal.

Both have offered talks on a political pact and dangled the possibility of Cabinet posts for members of Bayrou’s Union for French Democracy (UDF) party.

Sarkozy’s ruling party, with whom the UDF has been allied in the current government, has added a stick to the carrot, threatening to ditch constituency alliances and oppose UDF candidates in parliamentary elections in June if Bayrou does not come on board.

But Bayrou, who came third in Sunday’s multi-candidate first round with 18,57% of the vote, has until now kept a stony silence, refusing to advise his supporters to head either left or right in the run-off on May 6.

Most observers said the 55-year-old former education minister would not endorse either Royal or Sarkozy at Wednesday’s press conference, having fought his campaign on the central theme of rejecting the left-right political divide.

There was instead talk of creating a new political party to build on his strong presidential showing in the June parliamentary vote.

Royal, who wants to become France’s first woman president, has stressed the points that her left-wing economic and social platform have in common with Bayrou.

His support would “of course” translate into ministerial positions in a government, she said on Tuesday. “That’s what a presidential majority is.”

Sarkozy, a former interior minister, directly addressed members of Bayrou’s party.

“I say to my friends of the UDF that they are welcome. Each one of them who joins us does so freely,” he said at a rally on Tuesday night in Grand-Quevilly in the northern coastal Seine-Maritime region.

A poll released on Wednesday showed Sarkozy would win 53,5% of the vote in the May 6 election against 46,5% for Royal.

The Ipsos/Dell poll suggested that Royal could count on the support of 39% of Bayrou’s supporters, with 35% backing Sarkozy. The remaining 26% would abstain.

France is voting for a successor to Jacques Chirac, who has been president since 1995, in an election that will usher in a younger generation of leaders amid much agonising over how to adapt to globalisation and attack high unemployment.

Pledging a “clean break” from the politics of the past, Sarkozy (52) has centred his campaign around right-wing themes such as the work ethic, national identity, immigration and economic liberalisation.

Royal (53) promises to protect the country’s generous “social model” and her 100-point “presidential pact” contains many new welfare projects to fight poverty and joblessness.

The two candidates are to hold a television debate on May 2, which should be the high point of the second-round campaign. — AFP

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