April 27, 2007 / 7:43 AM / in 10 years

French centrist accuses Sarkozy of stifling debate

PARIS (Reuters) - Defeated centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou accused rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday of putting pressure on broadcasters to scrap a TV debate between him and Socialist challenger Segolene Royal.

<p>Nicolas Sarkozy, France's UMP political party presidential candidate, arrives at France 2 television for a political interview programme in Paris, April 26, 2007. REUTERS/Thomas Coex/Pool</p>

Bayrou said Sarkozy had subverted basic democratic freedoms of free speech by using his network of media and business contacts to pull the plug on Saturday’s scheduled debate.

His strong third place in Sunday’s first round ballot sparked a scramble to win over Bayrou’s almost 7 million voters, and Royal proposed a debate to assess possible points of convergence with the centrist.

Asked on RTL radio if he was accusing Sarkozy of asking Canal+ television to cancel the debate, Bayrou said: “I don’t have the proof but I am certain of it.”

Bayrou said he based his accusations on testimony from Canal+ and “all those who were interested in the debate and intended to broadcast it.”

There was no immediate response from the Sarkozy camp.

On Thursday, Canal+ pulled out of a plan to broadcast the Royal-Bayrou debate citing election rules governing equal airtime for candidates ahead of a May 6 run-off between Royal and Sarkozy.

The CSA broadcasting watchdog issued a statement denying it had ordered Canal+ and two other broadcasters to drop the debate, sparking cries of foul play from the Socialist camp.

Bayrou refused to endorse either candidate but his criticism of Royal’s economic program was soft compared to his withering attacks on what he said was Sarkozy’s use of intimidation of opponents to get his way.

Sarkozy on Thursday said Bayrou’s harsh words against him were the result of his disappointment at being eliminated in the first round, and that voters were now interested in a debate between the two remaining candidates -- himself and Royal.

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