Potential kingmaker Francois Bayrou basked in the spotlight Wednesday as France waited to hear whether he would back one of the two remaining presidential candidates in a tense race.
Bayrou, a farmer's son and lawmaker who scored a strong third place in Sunday's first round of voting, was to speak out Wednesday afternoon on the battle between conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal.
They face a runoff on May 6, when voters must choose between their starkly different plans for reviving the economy and France's global profile after 12 lackluster years under Jacques Chirac.
Bayrou has sought to put a new face on French politics by tapping voter frustration with the traditional left and right. His centrist UDF party has traditionally voted with conservatives in parliament, but Bayrou courted leftists during the campaign and polls show his 7 million voters divided between both camps.
After a four-hour meeting with UDF lawmakers Tuesday, few expected Bayrou to endorse Sarkozy or Royal outright on Wednesday. Colleagues predicted he would announce a new social democrat political party, modeled after efforts by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, with an eye to parliamentary elections in June.
Bayrou faced a tricky exercise in keeping his diverse electorate behind him, however, as some UDF lawmakers deserted him Tuesday to back Sarkozy. Bayrou's political future is at stake.
Education Minister Gilles de Robien, a UDF member who backs Sarkozy, was quoted in Le Parisien on Wednesday as saying Bayrou is at an "impasse" and has "lost his bet."
If Sarkozy continues to bleed him of lawmakers, Bayrou could find himself empty-handed or shut out of parliament, with hopes of a new political landscape dashed.
Still, Bayrou, long scoffed by the country's decision-makers, was the center of attention this week as both Sarkozy and Royal courted him and his voters.
Royal, in particular, needs Bayrou's backers. She got 25.9 percent of the vote Sunday while Sarkozy took nearly 31.2 percent.
She brusquely dismissed calls for an alliance with Bayrou before Sunday's first round of voting, but said Tuesday night that she could appoint UDF politicians to ministerial posts if she wins the presidency. Some centrists suggested her overtures were too little, too late.
Prominent Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn said Wednesday that if Bayrou fails to endorse a candidate, that will be a tacit nod to the right.
"If nothing happens ... then we remain in the old tradition, that is to say that in the end, despite all the declarations, the center will be nothing more than an appendage of the right," he said on Europe-1 radio.
Strauss-Kahn called for a new political alignment and said the French left was stuck in the 20th century.
One Socialist senator, Jean-Luc Melenchon, warned Wednesday against any alliance with Bayrou.
"Francois Bayrou is the right. There is no presidential majority possible with Bayrou. But we hope that his voters help us to build one," Melenchon said in an interview with Le Figaro.
Some analysts speculated that Bayrou could strike a deal with Sarkozy's UMP party that would guarantee spots for the centrists in the government and boost their chances in parliament. Otherwise, Sarkozy's UMP party could seek revenge during legislative elections by putting UMP candidates in every constituency with a centrist candidate.
"If he returns to the right, it's a failure, and will be viewed as an attempt to protect the interests of the UDF," Vincent Tiberj, political analyst with the Institute of Political Science. "If he supports no one, it's irresponsible."
Two polls published Wednesday had Sarkozy in the lead, though by small margins. TNS-Sofres had Sarkozy at 51 percent and Royal at 49 percent after questioning 1,000 people Monday and Tuesday. Ipsos had Sarkozy with 53.5 percent and Royal with 46.5 percent, after surveying 1,208 people Monday and Tuesday. No margin of error was given.
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