France's Bayrou Won't Endorse Candidate

Francois Bayrou, the third-place candidate in last weekend's presidential election in France, had nothing good to say about his competitors in a speech Wednesday. His refusal to endorse either Nicolas Sarkozy or Segolene Royal leaves both candidates to fight it out for the remaining votes in the May 6 runoff.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

In France, voters are facing a stark left or right choice in the presidential election, which is coming up on May 6. Conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal were the only survivors of last weekend's first round of voting.

Now the two are fighting over the seven million votes of the man who came in third. That would be the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Since the first round of the presidential polls Sunday, all of France has been waiting to hear from Francois Bayrou. Bayrou's campaign was the first time that a centrist party had made such a successful showing in a country starkly divided between left and right.

Now Bayrou's seven million voters could be crucial in deciding who will be the next president of France. Today Bayrou gave his advice in a highly anticipated, nationally televised press conference.

Mr. FRANCOIS BAYROU: (Through translator): Nicolas Sarkozy will aggravate the social fracture of this country. Segolene Royal will worsen our economy. And both will make our deficit worse.

What we are in for is more disappointment and paralysis. Given the situation, I will give no sign to my voters on how to vote. They are free to make their own decision.

BEARDSLEY: Bayrou's announcement could not have been more direct. He said he was forming a new party, the Democratic Party, that will give French voters a real alternative to what he called left-right gridlock.

Socialist Segolene Royal received 26 percent in the first round compared to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy's 31 percent, which was the largest vote ever received by a candidate in the first round.

Both candidates have been vigorously courting Bayrou's voters. But they are especially crucial to Segolene Royal, says pollster Bruno Jeanbart.

Mr. BRUNO JEANBART (Pollster): It seems that she needs to catch 60, 70 percent of the voters of Bayrou if she wants to win, and it's very difficult, because most - many of them come from the right, our traditional right voters.

So that's the first difficulty. And the second problem for her is the fact that many people who come from the left and vote for Francois Bayrou did it because they don't like Segolene Royal.

BEARDSLEY: Jeanbart says Royal will benefit from the anyone but Sarkozy vote to a certain extent. But she cannot rely only on that. She now has 12 days to prove she has a viable program and that she would make a good president.

(Soundbite of Bayrou supporters)

BEARDSLEY: After the election results were announced on Sunday, Bayrou supporters booed when Sarkozy spoke on national television. But many said they were confused about who they would support in the second round.

Twenty-seven year old Vincent Pinoit(ph) said he would not so much vote for Royal as against Sarkozy.

Mr. VINCENT PINOIT (France resident): He wants - he wants (unintelligible) everything first. And the way the (unintelligible) police and policing everything, I think it's kind of a sense of authority. And it's scary for me.

BEARDSLEY: Bayrou's speech today will certainly not make the choice any easier for his supporters. Five polling organizations are already predicting that Sarkozy will beat Royal and become president of France.

But it's going to be close. The latest polls show only two points separating the candidates. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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