Third man gains ground in presidential election race

27th February 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 27, 2007 (AFP) - Francois Bayrou, a centrist who casts himself as the Third Man in France's presidential race, has elbowed his way deeper into the campaign with a prime-time TV performance attacking the left-right divide.

PARIS, Feb 27, 2007 (AFP) - Francois Bayrou, a centrist who casts himself as the Third Man in France's presidential race, has elbowed his way deeper into the campaign with a prime-time TV performance attacking the left-right divide.

 Climbing in the polls and boosted by a string of high-profile endorsements, the leader of the Union for French Democracy (UDF) is carving out a space between the two election frontrunners, right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist Party (PS) rival Segolene Royal.

Monday night, more than six million viewers tuned in to watch the 55-year-old former education minister spell out his vision of a government of national unity designed to overcome ideological differences, before a panel of 100 French voters.

"For 20 years I have watched the results of the way we conduct politics, the perpetual war" between left and right, he said. "One side comes to power only to destroy what was done by the other".

"Little by little I watched France decline, I watched it grow poorer... and I concluded that it is impossible to rescue France under the current system."

"If you want real, concrete results, you have to be able to get different people to work together," said Bayrou, who though traditionally affiliated with the right, has said he would be willing to name a left-wing prime minister.

Accusing both Sarkozy and Royal of making irresponsible promises, Bayrou pledged to knock France's public finances back into shape, while carrying out pro-business reforms and leading a big push on education and youth training.

"I say to them both: let's stop making promises that we cannot afford. The French have had enough of being told nonsense," he said.

Bayrou's call for a "Third Way" has won a string of high-profile backers -- from former IMF director Michel Camdessus to top French political commentator Alain Duhamel, as well as business leaders and showbusiness figures.

An IFOP poll released on Tuesday credited him with 19 percent of votes in the first round of the April-May election -- his highest ever score -- compared to 29 percent for Sarkozy and 25.5 for Royal.

One recent poll suggested that, in a run-off, the centrist leader would defeat both Royal and Sarkozy -- who have both started to hit back at their unwelcome new rival.

"We'll get nowhere by adding a pinch of social measures to an ocean of economic liberalism," Royal said Monday in reference to Bayrou's platform.

On Tuesday Sarkozy's campaign director Claude Gueant dismissed Bayrou's call for a national unity government as "a complete illusion".

"Budget cuts are no project for French society," said Foreign Minister Philippe-Douste-Blazy -- another prominent ally from Sarkozy's governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Pollsters warn however that Bayrou's recent good fortunes were partly due to a slump in Royal's campaign, and could fall flat as the Socialist candidate recovers ground against Sarkozy.

After almost 30 polls predicting a hands-down Sarkozy victory over Royal, two polls released this week showed the pair once more running neck-and-neck.

"Bayrou's electorate is the most volatile of all, and the main challenge for the centrist is to anchor voters at his side," warned IFOP's Frederic Dabi.

Meanwhile, the score of his closest challenger -- far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, credited with 10 to 14 percent -- has traditionally been underestimated due to the stigma attached to the far-right.

In 2002 Le Pen defied all predictions by beating the Socialist candidate into the run-off vote against Jacques Chirac.

"There can only be one Third Man and we know it's Le Pen," Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said last week.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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