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French Elections: The Rise of Centrist Francois Bayrou

With the French presidential election campaign entering its final week, DW-WORLD.DE takes a look at Francois Bayrou, so the so-called "Third Man" of the presidential race.

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Centrist French presidential candidate Bayrou has taken a surprise leap in the polls

Who is Francois Bayrou? He is the man who can beat the frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy, according to the polls.

When France votes in the first round of the presidential election on April 22, there will be 12 names on the ballot. Assuming no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two will then contest a run-off vote on May 6. It's generally assumed that one of those two will be Nicolas Sarkozy, the former interior minister who has consistently led the opinion polls. In second place is Segolene Royal, the socialist mother of four, who has struggled to close the gap with Sarkozy.

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahlen Symbolbild

Not just Sarko vs Sego anymore - Bayrou has grabbed the center

Snapping at Royal's heels is Francois Bayrou, the centrist leader of the small Union for French Democracy (UDF), who emerged, seemingly from nowhere, in mid February, rising to 20 percent in the opinion polls and snatching votes from right and left.

Most significantly, polling indicates that if he were to edge out Royal and make it into the second round, Bayrou would beat Sarkozy in the run-off.

There is only one poll that really counts

But in French politics, it doesn't do to rely too heavily on the polls. The world was shocked when the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen edged out his socialist rival to qualify for the run-off in 2002, a show of support the pollsters hadn't predicted. 2007 is widely seen as a "change" election, after 12 years of conservative rule under Jacques Chirac.

According to Nicolas Sauger, Senior Researcher at the Center for Political Science Research in Paris (CEVIPOF), "The 2007 election is characterized by a strange mix of disillusionment, hence the success of Francois Bayrou who's an 'anti-system' candidate, and utopia -- with the belief that politics has to reclaim its capacity to change life."

Enter Bayrou -- a 55 year old teacher, academic and politicians who captured the attention of jaded voters with his plans for a unity government, along the lines of Germany's grand coalition, and his aim for a "peaceful revolution" in French politics.

It is, says Sauger, "a kind of 'populist' appeal targeting the French middle class."

Man of the people, not Paris

Frankreich Fernsehen Rede von Jacques Chirac Abschied

After 12 years of Chirac, France is entering a new era

Bayrou still lives in his childhood home in the south-western Bearn region of France, where his family has farmed for generations. He continues to breed horses and is keen to stress his humble roots, recently insisting that documentary maker photograph him on the back of a tractor.

A devoutly catholic father of six, who married at age 20 and trained as a teacher, he is keen to cultivate his "man of the people" persona in his appeal to voters. Unlike Sarkozy and Royal, he is not rich and does not pay the "wealth tax," declaring assets of just 600,000 euros ($811,000).

Bayrou's policy platform is based on the slogan of the "six Es" -- employment, ecology, education, economy, exclusion and Europe. He also champions moderation of spending in a country that has suffered years of high unemployment (currently 8.6 percent) and a huge deficit (equivalent to 64.6 percent of GDP) that is leaving many French citizens anxious about the future of their welfare state.

"What France needs is for these two parties in power for 25 years to be thrown out of power, out of the comfort of power and the comfort of the opposition," said Bayrou at a packed rally held in a Paris concert hall. The rally attracted over 6,000 people, an impressive turnout for a politician not well known in the capital.

An alternative to the status quo

Demonstration in Paris gegen Jean-Marie Le Pen

Too close to call - unexpected success for Le Pen in 2002 drove thousands onto the streets in protest

His message is attractive to jaded voters sick of the major parties.

"He can unite us," said high school teacher Frederic Monier, 29, at the rally.

"I want a change and I say why not Bayrou?" said 30-year-old Sebastian Marque, who works in a film studio. Others, like Antonia Arias, a 35 year old municipal employee, are undecided but said Bayrou appealed to her more than the frontrunners.

He has also capitalized on a resentment of so-called "Paris political elites," and a section of the polity who feel alienated from their leaders, by pledging to abolish the calling for the abolition of the elite civil service college, the National Administration School (ENA), which has produced many of the nations top politicians and public servants, including President Jacques Chirac and former President Valery Giscard-D'Estaing; Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his predecessors Lionel Jospin, and Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal.

Ironically, it's a policy that the far right Jean-Marie Le Pen says Bayrou had appropriated from him.

"We've been calling for the abolition of ENA for years," Le Pen told reporters. "By producing identikit civil servants in a single school, you end up with a kind of aristocracy -- which is just how they see themselves."

He's got the ex per ience

Bayrou may be keen to stress his modest origins but doesn't want anyone to forget his cabinet experience either -- he was education minister twice under the right-wing governments of Edouard Balladur and Alain Juppe. In addition, he is an academic author of a dozen books on history and politics, including a biography of King Henry IV of France. His latest, Project of Hope, has become a bestseller and outlines his vision for France.

Die Nationalversammlung in Paris

Bayrou want to build a unity government from the National Assembly

However his unity proposal, whilst being one of Bayrou's key selling points, has also proved a weakness. Preaching harmony appeals to a section of the electorate, but it leaves other confused about what he really stands for.

Sarkozy has attacked Bayrou as a political opportunist.

"You think he is on the right, and he has moved to the left. You think he is on the left and he has moved to the right," Sarkozy said while campaigning outside Paris. "That's not how you lead the world's fifth most powerful country."

The socialists accused him of being disingenuous, a right-winger misrepresenting himself as a man of the center.

Frankreich Paris Stadt Arc de Triomphe

Left, Right or through the center with Bayrou?

Bayrou hit back, saying the only way his opponents can work together is "when it comes to shooting down my candidacy," and says it shows they are nervous.

"Do you really think that they would be shooting at me like they are if I were an illusion?" he asked. "I am the only element of renewal and transformation in the political landscape."

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