Election opens up as third man catches leaders

8th March 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 8, 2007 (AFP) - The French presidential race opened up in exciting fashion Thursday, as two polls showed that the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou -- till now seen as an outside bet -- is within an ace of the two front-runners.

PARIS, March 8, 2007 (AFP) - The French presidential race opened up in exciting fashion Thursday, as two polls showed that the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou -- till now seen as an outside bet -- is within an ace of the two front-runners.

Bayrou, who heads the small Union for French Democracy (UDF) party, gets 24 percent of the vote in the multi-candidate first round of the election -- just one point behind Socialist Segolene Royal and two behind right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy, according to a CSA survey for Le Parisien newspaper.

A second poll by BVA for regional newspapers put the former education minister at 21 percent in round one on April 22 -- behind Royal on 24 percent and Sarkozy on 29 percent.

They were the highest scores to date for Bayrou, 55, who has shot up in the polls in recent weeks as Royal's star has faded, and suggest he has a serious chance of qualifying for the two-candidate second round on May 6.

Even better news for the candidate was that in the event of a run-off against Sarkozy, the BVA poll found that he would win by 55 percent to 45 percent. In a Sarkozy-Royal decider, Sarkozy would win by 53 percent to 47, the poll reported.

The polls were expected to provoke consternation in both the Royal and Sarkozy camps, with Bayrou supporters acclaiming it as vindication of his call for a "third way" between the left-right divide.

Socialist supporters fear a band-wagon effect in which centre-left voters abandon Royal as a lost cause and defect massively to Bayrou. The Sarkozy team fears that if Bayrou qualifies for round two, he will benefit from large-scale tactical voting to keep out the right-winger.

Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) turned up the attacks on Bayrou Thursday, with spokeswoman Rachida Dati describing him as "a bearer of right-wing values, but with much less ambition, unclear and less courageous" than Sarkozy.

Finance Minister Thierry Breton said Bayrou's economic policies were unrealistic and ineffectual against the country's large debt.

The UMP was also hoping to draw some of the sting from Bayrou's poll success with the announcement later Thursday that Simone Veil, 79, the highly respected Auschwitz survivor and former UDF minister, is to head Sarkozy's campaign support committee.

A former teacher who grew up on a farm in the Pyrenees mountains, Bayrou leads a bloc of fewer than 30 parliamentarians after most of the UDF defected to the UMP in 2002. Among former UDF members are Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Social Affairs Minister Jean-Louis Borloo.

However Bayrou has fiercely defended his party's independence, and says that if elected president he will form a government drawn from both left and right.

Bayrou became leader of the UDF in 1998, after serving four years as education minister in centre-right coalitions led by members of President Jacques Chirac's political formation. A candidate at the 2002 elections, he got just under seven percent of the vote.

In the 2007 campaign he has called for controls to public expenditure, cuts in social charges to encourage job-creation, reform of the country's political institutions and an overhaul of the education system. He says Royal's Socialist message is archaic but accuses Sarkozy of being dangerously divisive.

Bayrou's soaring fortunes even extended to the race-track Wednesday, when "Alix Road" -- a four year-old filly raised at his horse-farm in the Pyrenees -- won a race at the Saint-Cloud hippodrome outside Paris.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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