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Key French centrist withholds backing from 2 who bested him

François Bayrou grinned as he took the podium yesterday in Paris, before criticizing the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, who outpolled him in last weekend's election and sought his support in their runoff election May 6. (Francois Mori/associated press)

PARIS -- They wooed him hard, even leaving messages on his cellphone, but yesterday he spurned them both.

Beaten but defiant, the third-place finisher in France's first-round presidential election said he would not throw his 7 million voters behind either of the two candidates still fighting for the top job: conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy or Socialist Ségolène Royal.

Instead, François Bayrou said he will form a new party in the political center, setting his sights on the next election in 2012.

Bayrou's decision not to play kingmaker in the May 6 runoff was a major gamble that could reshape France's political future -- or kill his career.

France's decision-makers long disregarded Bayrou as a onetime farmboy with a puny political voice. Yet his outsider image propelled him up the polls this year.

He savored his moment in the sun yesterday as France waited to hear whether he would endorse a candidate for the runoff. He said both Royal and Sarkozy phoned him Monday after the first round -- and he ignored their calls.

"I will not give guidance about how to vote," Bayrou said at a packed news conference that several TV channels broadcast live.

Bayrou described France as "fragile" and "hurting."

"We are a country with a sick democracy, we are a country with a torn social fabric, we are a country that lacks growth," he said.

Sarkozy and Royal, he said, would only make those troubles worse.

Sarkozy slightly leads polls ahead of the runoff, when voters choose between two radically different recipes for reviving the economy and France's global profile after 12 years under Jacques Chirac.

Bayrou's centrist UDF party has long leaned right, voting with conservatives in parliament. But for this campaign, Bayrou tilted left when he realized he could harvest more votes that way -- a tactic critics called opportunistic.

His watchword is "balance," and he took care yesterday to criticize both candidates equally.

Bayrou reserved the harshest personal blows for the tough-on-crime, often abrasive Sarkozy -- calling him "intimidating" and saying he threatens France's democracy.

The problem with Royal, Bayrou said, is her economic plans: increased government spending that would choke instead of stimulate badly needed growth. Bayrou's own economic formulas sound closer to -- though softer than -- Sarkozy's reformist proposals.

Polls show Bayrou's voters split fairly evenly in three: those who prefer Royal, those who prefer Sarkozy, and those who will abstain in the runoff in protest. Royal, in particular, needs Bayrou's backers: She won 25.9 percent of the vote Sunday while Sarkozy took nearly 31.2 percent.