PARIS (Reuters) - French Socialist presidential contender Segolene Royal courted voters of defeated centrist Francois Bayrou in a televised debate on Saturday, as two polls showed her picking up support ahead of a decisive May 6 vote.
Royal, who came second in the first round of the election on April 22, faces rightwing frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy in the run-off. The rivals are eyeing the 7 million French who voted for third-placed Bayrou.
“We’ll walk part of the way together,” a relaxed-looking Royal told Bayrou in the live debate on channel BFMTV.
Royal sought to use Saturday’s debate to flag the values she shares with Bayrou and draw away moderates attracted to Sarkozy’s energy and drive, but worried by his hardliner image. Some of Royal’s leftist supporters have criticized her move.
Opinion polls show Sarkozy ahead of Royal, although two on Saturday pointed to the gap narrowing.
An Ifop poll showed Royal gaining 1.5 percentage points to reach 47.5 percent, versus 52.5 percent for Sarkozy. A separate Ipsos survey showed 35 percent of Bayrou voters would now support Royal and 29 percent Sarkozy.
“We don’t agree on everything (but) millions of French think that on some difficult subjects we can find convergences,” Royal said during the debate in a Paris hotel, in which she and Bayrou frequently smiled at each other and joined in laughter.
Bayrou repeated during the debate that he endorsed neither Royal nor Sarkozy. But in the past few days, the centrist has clearly stated his antipathy to the latter.
Bayrou said he agreed with Royal on institutional reforms, but criticized her economic plans as too costly.
“I don’t agree with the idea that by handing out money to a large number of French, we will relaunch the engine,” he said.
Analysts said the debate could strengthen Royal’s position ahead of a TV debate with Sarkozy scheduled for next Wednesday.
“I think it can help her,” said political scientist Dominique Reynie, adding Royal had to rally the centrist vote.
“If she doesn’t ... she will get 40 percent, or maybe 45 percent, but not more than that.”
Royal has defended left-wing economic policies during her campaign but has also raised eyebrows from the left for calling on voters to wave the French flag on public holidays and for a plan for military boot camps for young troublemakers.
Sarkozy, who wants to fight crime and encourage hard work for more pay, has called the Bayrou-Royal debate a tragi-comedy.
“I prefer being on the ground,” former interior minister Sarkozy said during a trip to northern France.
“This debate has brought vagueness and confusion while the French are expecting clarity,” he later told the Journal du Dimanche paper. “It’s contrary to our institutions’ spirit.”
Even before the debate, Bayrou and Royal seemed to agree on one point — their criticism of Sarkozy.
Bayrou on Friday accused him of using his influence to discourage a bigger TV channel from carrying the debate between himself and Royal. Royal denounced pressures within a “media-financial system to which ... Sarkozy is very linked”.
Le Monde daily also told a tale on Saturday of Sarkozy trying to pressure the media, saying that in December 1995 he complained when its cartoonist drew him with a fly circling over his head.
Sarkozy had objected because it had published similar cartoons of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Royal and Bayrou said in the debate they agreed a law was needed to limit the concentration of media and regulate the weight of financial and industrial firms in media companies.
Bayrou has announced plans for a new centrist party, which would contest June’s legislative polls.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Jean-Baptiste Vey