PARIS (Reuters) - France's Canal+ station on Thursday pulled the plug on a TV debate between Socialist presidential contender Segolene Royal and defeated centrist Francois Bayrou, citing election equal airtime rules.
Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, her rightwing rival in a May 6 run off, are battling for the hearts and minds of some 7 million voters who backed Bayrou in a first round election on Sunday.
But Canal+ television, which had organized the Royal-Bayrou debate with i-Tele and France Inter radio, said in a statement the debate could not go ahead as planned at midday on Saturday.
"(The) rules impose a strict equality of air time between presidential candidates, so Canal+ cannot broadcast the debate between Segolene Royal and Francois Bayrou," Canal+ said.
The CSA broadcasting watchdog denied it had intervened to scrap the debate and Socialists cried foul, with Royal aide Jack Lang evoking "pretty peculiar political pressure".
A party spokesman said the debate would go ahead in one form or another.
Royal said she wanted the debate to assess possible points of convergence with Bayrou, but she angered some of the Socialist's traditional far-left allies who suspect she wants to shunt the party towards the political centre to win power.
Sarkozy supporter Jean-Francois Cope told RTL radio the debate's cancellation was a non-event that "should not deflect the French people from the real debate between the two who reached the final for the second round".
Former interior minister Sarkozy won 31.2 percent of the vote on Sunday, qualifying for the runoff against Royal who finished second on 25.9 percent.
Bayrou came third with 18.6 percent and has refused to endorse either candidate, but he was especially harsh in his criticism of Sarkozy in a press conference on Wednesday.
"Bayrou won't vote for Sarkozy," le Parisien daily said.
Opinion polls say Sarkozy should beat Royal in the run-off, putting the onus on the Socialist candidate to take risks.
Political analysts said a television debate with Bayrou could have backfired on Royal because her message could become confused and she could antagonize her bedrock supporters.
But if she succeeds in winning over Bayrou, she could clinch vital extra votes to overtake Sarkozy. A CSA survey released on Thursday showed Sarkozy on 52 percent against 48 percent for Royal, who had slightly narrowed the gap.
Small leftist parties whose presidential candidates were eliminated in the first round have urged their supporters to vote for Royal on May 6, but they said her cultivation of the centrists could alienate some voters.
"If it's her objective to beat Nicolas Sarkozy, it's totally contradictory to go looking for the votes of all of the left, while at the same time preparing the base for a political alliance with Bayrou," a small communist party said.
Royal has based her campaign on left-wing economic policies and conservative social values, criticizing high bank charges and excessive executive payouts, but also raising eyebrows with a plan to send young troublemakers to military boot camps.
Sarkozy, who portrays himself as a no-nonsense man of action, has pushed a tough line on immigration and law and order. He wants the French to work harder and pay less tax.
Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich, Jean Baptiste Vey