Setback for Sarkozy as Bayrou Backs Rival

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes of re-election suffered a further knock when the leader of France’s centrist party shifted his support to the Socialist challenger already buoyed by a strong performance in the campaign’s only head-to-head television debate.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy
Julien Hekimian | AFP | Getty Images
French President Nicholas Sarkozy

François Bayrou, a former center-right minister who came fifth in the first round of the presidential electionwith 9.1 percent of the vote, announced on Thursday evening that he would vote for François Hollande, the Socialist frontrunner. He said Mr. Sarkozy had become “obsessed” with immigration.

Mr. Bayrou insisted this was a personal statement, rather than a recommendation to his supporters in the Democratic Movement, but his intervention will do little to help Mr. Sarkozypick up the centrist vote.

Many other senior centrist figures said they would be voting for Mr. Hollande although some have already said they would back the center-right candidate.

A failure to win over center-ground voters could prove fatal to Mr. Sarkozy’s hopes of victory, after he spent the closing stages of the campaign focusing on solidly right-wing themes such as immigration and crime in an attempt to woo supporters of the far-right National Front.

Speaking to thousands of supporters at his last mass rally in Toulouse, Mr. Hollande warned against complacency but sounded increasingly confident. Victory was “in their hands”, he said, and the “left is ready to rule”.

He also made his first warning about the immensity of the task ahead to repair the country’s finances. “It will be tough to win, tough to succeed. The problems are not going to disappear with the departing president.”

However, the election could still spring a surprise. A poll published on Thursday by Opinionway for Le Figaro, a conservative newspaper, put Mr. Hollande ahead on 52.5 percent of the vote with Mr. Sarkozy on 47.5 percent, confirming that the Socialist’s lead is still shrinking. In October Mr. Hollande was polling above 60 percent. The gap is now close to the margin of error.

In his final major campaign rally in the southern port of Toulon, Mr. Sarkozy insisted an “underground’ momentum of support for him was building. “It will do its work on Sunday—we have a rendezvous with history”.

He once again turned his fire on Mr. Hollande, ridiculing his promise to delegate power. “He wants to preside, he doesn’t want to govern. That is too risky.”

“If you see the [poll] gap continuing to narrow, do not exclude the possibility of a Nicolas Sarkozy victory,” said Dominique Reynié, a professor at Sciences-Po university and director of the Foundation for Political Innovation think tank. “It suggests there is a shift in the electorate under way. It could be close.”

Mr. Reynié said one of the reasons the outcome was hard to predict was that first-round voters of Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate, included working class voters attracted by her “very left-wing economic agenda” who may now vote Socialist.

Wednesday’s televised debate, watched by 17 million people, was supposed to be the moment the incumbent would turn the tables on his Socialist challenger. Mr. Sarkozy had intended to use the occasion to expose his rival’s lack of government experience and his old-fashioned tax-and-spend socialism.

But after a hesitant start, Mr. Hollande fought back blow by blow, keeping the focus on Mr. Sarkozy’s record in office.

The Socialist, in the past likened to a soft-centered caramel pudding by his detractors, proved resilient and tenacious. He appeared to gain in authority and stature as the debate worse on, to the extent that his performance was described as “haughty” by François Fillon, the prime minister.

He saved his most powerful intervention to the end, with an onslaught on Mr. Sarkozy’s style of government and centralization of power in the Elysée palace. “I would not be a president of everything…who takes responsibility for nothing,” Mr. Hollande said.

As throughout the campaign, Mr. Sarkozy proved unable to set the agenda or to dominate his opponent.

The verdict of most commentators was that the two candidates ended their bad-tempered match broadly even on points. Even the staunchly pro-Sarkozy Le Figaro newspaper could not claim victory, headlining its front page simply “High Tension”.

An opinion poll by LH2 found that 45 percent of those who were asked thought Mr. Hollande more convincing, versus 42 percent for Mr. Sarkozy, while 47 percent though the president the most competent, against 41 percent for his challenger. But at this late stage in the campaign a draw was a setback for the incumbent.

“The French people were not left with the impression that François Hollandewas un-presidential,” said Mr. Reynié. “So for that reason, he was the winner.”