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Sarkozy, Royal Aim for Centre as Campaign Resumes

French presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal went back to the campaign trail on Monday as they battled for votes from the undecided centre ground that will be key to their May 6 runoff.

Sunday's first round ballot set up a classic race between left and right in France after Sarkozy, the conservative former interior minister, scored a resounding win with 31.2% against 25.9% for the Socialist candidate Royal.

Polls give Sarkozy an edge before the decisive second round, with 52-54% support against 46-48% for Royal.

But the result had both candidates eyeing supporters of centrist Francois Bayrou, who captured 18.6% of the vote after a dynamic campaign based on a pledge to sweep aside the ruling elite and overcome traditional political divides.

"Essentially the results will be dictated by the behaviour of his voters. They are the ones who will make a difference," Roland Cayrol, head of pollsters CSA told Le Parisien newspaper.

Bayrou, head of the small centre-right UDF party, has not given any endorsement and with polls suggesting his supporters could vote either way, spokesmen for the two candidates looked past the man himself to appeal directly to his voter base.

Socialist party leader Francois Hollande said Royal's team would not be beginning negotiations with Bayrou's camp but he said she would be appealing for as broad a majority as possible.

"There are men and women in Francois Bayrou's electorate who wanted change, who thought they would beat Sarkozy by voting Bayrou," he told France 2 television.

Swing to the Centre

Both candidates resumed campaigning on Monday, with Sarkozy meeting a women's association in Paris before travelling to the eastern city of Dijon for an early evening rally, while Royal goes to Valence in southern France for an open air meeting.

They hold a televised debate on May 2 which is likely to be key to helping undecided voters make up their minds.

"They have to reflect on the question of knowing who has the most experience, the most courage, the strongest will," said Francois Fillon, a close Sarkozy aide who is tipped as a possible prime minister.

Whoever wins will have to address the deep discontent of a country suffering from one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union and with memories of riots in its deprived multi-ethnic suburbs less than two years ago still raw.

Sarkozy's victory on Sunday owed much to his success in siphoning off support from far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen with a campaign based on fighting crime and illegal immigration and encouraging hard work for more pay.

Le Pen himself came fourth on Sunday with 10.44 of the vote -- his worst showing at a presidential election since 1974.

However, Sarkozy made clear that he would swing to the centre before May 6 in a bid to soften a combative image that delights his supporters but scares many other voters.

On Sunday, he promised a "new dream" around which he would "rally the French people" and promised to help those struggling on low incomes and facing insecurity.

He met outgoing centre-right President Jacques Chirac on Monday and received a message of support for the second round, officials at the Elysee Palace said.

For her part, Royal, whose own campaign was a mixture of left-wing economic policy and conservative social values, is likely to continue painting Sarkozy as a dangerous authoritarian in a bid to make the election a referendum against him.

"Does France want that right in power?" asked the left-wing daily Liberation. "The question is clear."

Royal, aiming to become France's first woman president, has faced doubts over competence even within her own camp after a campaign in which the media seized on a series of gaffes.

But her slightly regal personal image and proposals for flying the flag and sending young offenders to military-style boot camps mark a break with the traditional style of the Socialist party and could aid an appeal to the centre.