Some seven million middle-ground voters hold the key to deciding who will be France's next president as the election headed for a straight-forward right-left run-off this month.
No sooner had rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist rival Ségolène Royal topped the first round of voting than they set their sights on the supporters
of centrist Francois Bayrou whose votes are now up for grabs.
Bayrou, a 55-year-old former education minister, won nearly 19% in the first round
of voting, taking third spot but knocked out of the May 6 showdown.
After entering the race as a fringe candidate, Bayrou shot up in the polls as he
campaigned on a platform that rejected the traditional left-right divide and called for
a unity government made up of moderates from both camps.
“Bayrou has a key role even if he doesn't own those votes,” said analyst Thierry Vedel of the CEVIPOF research institute, who said both Royal and Sarkozy would court him and his voters in the runup to the decider.
A former member of Bayrou's Union for French Democracy (UDF) party who is backing Sarkozy held out the prospect of plum ministerial posts for UDF members.
“If Nicolas Sarkozy is the president of the republic, I would personally find it necessary, indispensable and fortuitous that UDF members be massively represented in the government,” said Employment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo in a radio interview.
Bayrou was to hold a series of meetings with party members before an address planned on the way forward, his campaign manager said. Bayrou's party has in the past aligned itself with Sarkozy's governing Union for a Popular Movement but the candidate veered to the left during the campaign, attacking Sarkozy as a power-hungry politician unable to unite the nation. Sarkozy's lieutenant Brice Hortefeux said the frontrunner would not entertain “backroom deals” with Bayrou but added that “the door is not closed” to negotiations. Socialist party leader Francois Hollande, who is also Royal's partner, rejected suggestions of a deal with Bayrou, saying it “would not
be respectful” to the voters.
“I cannot imagine that his voters will now choose Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Hollande in a radio interview. Bayrou himself appeared to rule out siding with either of the winning candidates, saying that he would never “retreat” from his principled position of rejecting the left and the right. “He has a very mixed electorate,” said pollster Bruno Jeanbart of the private polling firm Opinion Way.
“These are voters who feel that it is time to break out of the partisan, ideological debate and find pragmatic solutions to France's problems.”
Royal, 53, who wants to become France's first woman president, may take a slightly bigger share of Bayrou's voters than Sarkozy, 52, Jeanbart said.
He said current polling figures showed 41% of Bayrou's electorate would back Royal compared to 35% for Sarkozy, but 24% say they support neither.
The first round of voting, on April 22, saw Sarkozy gain 30% of the vote nationally, compared to 25% for Royal, a gap of 5% that left some Sarkozy supporters confidently predicting their candidate was a certain to win the next round while others admitted the next week’s campaigning would be crucial and Royal’s party members said it was so small it left “everything to play for.”
Apart from scooping up some of the Bayrou votes Royal may benefit from
votes from supporters of the various far-left parties knocked out last month.
Another turn-up for the books in the first round was the crash in the fortunes of the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, who went through to the second round last time, with 17% compared to Jacques Chirac’s 20%. Even in those areas which put him first last time - like Alsace or the Riviera - he had sunk to fourth place, with those areas now among Sarkozy’s strongest supporters instead. Nationwide, Royal’s support was strongest in the centre and west of France, the South-west, Brittany, Normandy and the Pas-de-Calais, while the North, East and South-east are painted Sarkozy’s blue (a colour which represents the centre-right in France as it does in the UK). François Bayrou garnered his greatest support in the North-west, the South-west and in a band across the Midi-Pyrénees, Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes. Only one department - the Pyrénees Atlantiques - made him their first choice, with 30%. The first round saw an exceptional turn-out of 83.78%, comparable to the record 84.8% in 1965 or 84.2% in 1974. Sarkozy's second round campaign has already received a boost as a disgruntled former senior member of Royal's team pledged his support for the UMP candidate.
Eric Besson quit his position as chief economist for Socialist Party in February
and released a book describing Royal as a glory hunting populist.
He joined Sarkozy at his first engagement of the second round to denounce the
“campaign of demonisation” he said was being waged by the Socialist Party in order to mask their own weaknesses.