Some 7 million middle-ground voters hold the key to deciding who will be France's next president as the election yesterday headed for a basic right-left run-off in less than two weeks.
No sooner had right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist rival Segolene Royal topped the first round of voting on Sunday 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 percent in the first round of voting, taking third spot overall but was 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 run-up to the decider.
A former member of Bayrou's Union for French Democracy (UDF) party who is backing Sarkozy held out the prospect yesterday 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 for tomorrow on the way forward, his campaign manager said.
Bayrou's party has in the past aligned itself with Sarkozy's 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 suggestion 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.
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