Why French candidates are wooing the also-ran

François Bayrou has accepted an invitation to meet finalist Ségolène Royal for a televised 'debate' Saturday.

When the future of your country is on the line, who are you going to call?

For France, it appears to be a slightly tendentious scholar, farmer, and politician named François Bayrou, a man more comfortable on a tractor than at a Saint Tropez reception. Though Mr. Bayrou was knocked out of the first round of the French presidential race on April 22, by throwing his support behind one of the two final contenders, he could swing Europe's most important election of the year.

France faces a stark choice in the May 6 runoff: an elegant heroine who wants to be a Tony Blair-style leftist or a tough-guy reformer on the right à la Margaret Thatcher.

Ségolène Royal feels France needs maternal understanding to wrench itself away from its ossifying social-welfare model. Nicolas Sarkozy effectively suggests that it needs a good spanking.

This week the "Ségo-Sarko" race narrowed to less than a two point difference, 49 percent for her, 51 for him, according to polls by Le Figaro, the Paris daily newspaper.

Down-to-earth authenticity gives him clout

In the midst of this tremulous choice is Bayrou. For the next 10 days, a man who sits in the front seat with his driver and eschews tinted-window limousines, is in a position to be kingmaker, say a host of political cognoscenti.

Bayrou's leap from 6.9 points in the 2002 election, to 18.5 points in 2007 put him at the edge of history. By nature he is on the center right. But by trying to bridge left and right in a country long divided between placard-carrying communists and Gaullist sons of the soil, and attracting younger voters who like his European thinking, ecological riffs, and down-to-earth authenticity – analysts say Bayrou has brought something new. That gives him clout.

At a much-anticipated press conference Wednesday, Bayrou criticized both candidates and said he wasn't going to endorse anyone. A strong Roman Catholic with six children, Bayrou says he doesn't want to compromise his small centrist party's chances of scoring big in June parliamentary elections.

Says he won't endorse either candidate

But what is a prospective leader of France doing about the direction his country is heading on the eve of a major choice?

He seems to be leaning toward Royal. He accepted her invitation for a televised political debate. On Saturday, the duo will examine where they agree and disagree – giving Royal an opportunity to mix it up, show flexibility, and associate herself with a guy who's getting a lot of political buzz.

On Wednesday, while calling Royal's economic proposals "illusory," Bayrou mostly lit into Sarkozy. He said Sarkozy's "proximity to business circles and media powers … [his] taste for intimidation and threats, will concentrate power as it has never been before." Sarkozy, the voluble conservative former interior minister, was accused of "aggravating tears in the social fabric." Bayrou said he does "not know who I will vote for, but I know what I will not do." Most observers interpret that as a clear signal that he won't vote Sarkozy.

After Round 1, Royal and Sarkozy courted Bayrou like sailors just into port. Sarkozy reportedly called Bayrou more than a dozen times last Sunday, and this week he publicly threatened to conduct a hostile takeover of Bayrou's party should the centrist not side with him. Bayrou offered to debate Sarkozy. But Sarkozy has not responded.

Royal would likely benefit the most from Bayrou's help. She offered him a coalition. A political advisor in the ruling cabinet says the "only possibility" of a Royal victory on May 6 would be a Royal-Bayrou alliance, possibly with a deal promising to make Bayrou the prime minister.

An eye to his political future

It is unclear how much influence Bayrou has over his supporters' choice on May 6, say experts, and whether taking sides would wreck his future plans. "If he looks too hard-left or -right, he could be [politically] killed," says one commentator. Bayrou says he can't participate in a government whose principles he disagrees with – putting Royal in a position to offer him changes in her platform. Should such changes be significant enough, Bayrou could tell his supporters he is joining the left to conduct the kind of reforms he champions.

Yet some pundits feel if Sarkozy wins on May 6, the Socialists could easily split, and Bayrou would become the leading opposition figure.

And Bayrou's friends, like Vincent Lindon, a leading French actor and Bayrou campaigner, told the Monitor that in his heart, Bayrou would prefer Royal, but that in his head he is undecided. "If you woke Bayrou up in the middle of the night and said, 'who should your voters choose?' he would mumble that you have to vote Ségo for the sake of France. I don't think he likes Sarkozy."

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