Remaining French candidates seek votes in the center

Posted in Europe | 24-Apr-07 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

François Bayrou arriving at his party's campaign headquarters in Paris on Monday.

PARIS: The French presidential race is on - for the vote of the center.

The campaign entered a new phase Monday, as the winners of the first round, Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and Ségolène Royal on the left, began a battle for the 6.8 million voters who chose the path down the middle instead.

Taken together, the two winners scooped up 58 percent of the vote in the first round on Sunday. But François Bayrou, who heads the centrist Union for French Democracy, got nearly 19 percent of the vote, and those votes are up for grabs.

"The voters of the center control the election," said Stéphane Rozès, a director of the CSA polling institute. "The challenge is not knowing where they will go."

The Bayrou voters already are being sought by Sarkozy's camp.

"Naturally, the door is not closed," Brice Hortefeux, one of Sarkozy's closest advisers, said in an interview with France Inter radio Monday. But he added that the approach would be to the voters themselves. "We're talking as we did in the first round to the voters," he said. "We're not going through political organizations."

Jean-Louis Borloo, the labor minister and an ardent Sarkozy supporter, made a gesture to the Bayrou camp itself. He said in a radio interview Monday that a government headed by Sarkozy would find it "indispensable" to "massively" include members of Bayrou's party.

On Royal's side, François Hollande, the leader of the Socialist Party and the father of Royal's four children, ruled out any negotiations with Bayrou, saying on RTL radio Monday that any "logic of negotiation" would "not be respectful of the voters." He added that he did not think Bayrou would favor such an approach either.

Bayrou, meanwhile, said Sunday night that he would not endorse either candidate at the moment. "You don't own your votes," he told reporters. "If you listened carefully to what I said earlier, you'll see I want to keep my independence."

He was gracious and upbeat in his concession speech Sunday night, insisting that his message of conciliation instead of traditional party infighting had resonated among voters.

"There is finally a center in France, a large center, a strong center, an independent center capable of speaking and acting beyond previous borders," he said.

Bayrou's share of the vote was more than two-and-a-half times his level of support in the first round of the presidential election in 2002, when he received only 6.8 percent.

Instead of endorsing either candidate, he may prefer to position his party for the strongest showing possible for parliamentary elections in June.

Bayrou's party has had an odd history. Created in 1978 by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing during Giscard's presidency, it united Christian democrats and liberals and was meant to serve as an alternative to the Rally for the Republic Party that Jacques Chirac had founded two years earlier when he was running for mayor of Paris.

Then, in 2002, Chirac created the much larger Union for a Popular Movement Party, or UMP. He lured to his camp many of Bayrou's deputies in Parliament and severely weakened Bayrou's party in the process.

Chirac's former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and the current foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, were once members of Bayrou's party. The party traditionally has voted with the governing UMP party in Parliament.

As part of his presidential campaign to break the classic ritual of left-right party divide in politics, Bayrou offered to worked with the big Socialist and UMP parties and even floated the idea of naming as his prime minister a member of one of the parties. Both camps rejected the idea.

Then a former Socialist prime minister, Michel Rocard, proposed an alliance with Bayrou before the first round as the most efficient way to defeat Sarkozy. Both Bayrou and Royal said no.

Royal is expected to win over the bulk of the 11 percent of the votes who chose one of six leftist candidates. Likewise, Sarkozy can count on the 12 percent of the vote that went to two extreme right candidates, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers.