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French Centrist Bayrou Rebuffs Presidential Rivals

French centrist Francois Bayrou rejected overtures from presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal on Wednesday, saying he would not advise supporters who to vote for in the May 6 election.

Bayrou, who took 7 million votes in the first round of the election on Sunday to finish third ahead of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, could play a key role in deciding who wins the final run-off between Sarkozy and Royal.

But he had stinging words for both candidates, saying that right-wing former interior minister Sarkozy risked exacerbating social tensions in France while Royal would worsen France's serious economic problems.

"I will not give any advice on how to vote," Bayrou said.

He said Sarkozy and Royal had both called him since Sunday's election but he had not spoken to either of them.

Bayrou announced plans for a new centrist party, with the provisional name of the Democratic Party, which would contest the parliamentary election in June and said he was ready for a public debate with both Sarkozy and Royal.

Both Sarkozy and Royal have appealed to Bayrou's supporters.

But, with a comfortable lead in the first round of the election, Sarkozy has less need of a swing and he said he was not interested in backroom deals.

"The electors don't belong to Francois Bayrou any more than they do to Segolene Royal, Jean-Marie Le Pen or Nicolas Sarkozy," Sarkozy told the daily Le Monde. "Don't just reduce voters to their choice in the first round."

"Anyone But Sarko"

The latest opinion polls continue to give Sarkozy, the clear winner on Sunday, an edge but a TNS Sofres poll commissioned by conservative daily Le Figaro and published in its Wednesday edition showed his lead down to just two percentage points.

Another poll by the Ipsos institute gave him a much more comfortable lead of some 7 points.

In the April 22 first round, Sarkozy polled 31.2%, Royal 25.9% and Bayrou 18.6%.

With the campaign in its final stages, jobs, security and immigration are still the main issues but the focus has moved more and more to personality.

The left is seeking to build on widely held concerns about former interior minister Sarkozy's combative character and mobilize an "Anyone but Sarko" vote.

"Ten good reasons not to vote Sarkozy," the left-wing daily Liberation splashed over its front page, following up with a litany of objections to Sarkozy's tough views on justice, the police, immigration, social welfare and power.

Although support for Royal is often tempered by doubts about her competence and reserves about her aloof personal style, surveys show even many conservative and centrist voters worry about Sarkozy, despite attempts to soften his style.

According to the TNS Sofres survey, 46% of Bayrou's voters support Royal, against 25% for Sarkozy and 29% who have yet to make up their minds, although other polls have showed support roughly evenly split.