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Fight for political centre heats up ahead of 2012 vote

Hervé Morin (pictured right), the leader of France's New Centre party and a former ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy, has become the latest candidate to vie for the middle ground in next year's presidential election.


Centrist politician Herve Morin has officially added his name to a fast-growing list of presidential hopefuls who will run in France’s 2012 election. The fifty-year-old candidate is part of a handful of established figures elbowing each other for recognition in France’s political middle ground, and threatening to siphon crucial votes away from the two leading candidates.

A former defence minister under French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Morin made his announcement in front of supporters and the press at a rally in the north-west department of Normandy on November 27. “Some will argue that this is a daring commitment, and it is," he declared.

The move came just three days after François Bayrou, France’s leading centrist figure, joined the race. So far, opinion polls give Morin no more than 1% support among French voters. Bayrou, who came in third in the 2007 presidential vote, is poised to obtain between six and seven percent of first-round ballots next April, opinion polls indicated this month.

France's president is elected by direct voting for a five-year term.

Presidential elections have historically been organised into two rounds. If no candidate wins more than half of all ballots in the first round, voters must pick between the two top candidates in a run-off.

The first round of the next presidential elections in France will be held in April 22, 2012, with a run-off on May 6 if necessary.

The two candidates are also competing against Corinne Lepage, a former environment minister whose campaign proposes to gradually abandon nuclear energy and to re-launch French industry based on green technologies. Like Morin, opinion polls give Lepage around 1% support.

Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande is the current frontrunner in the election, trailed by President Sarkozy, according to opinion surveys.

The ‘legitimate’ centre

In a letter backing Morin, parliament members from his New Centre party said they were “proud” the candidate would “carry the historic torch of the [Union for French Democracy] UDF party.” The statement was a snub to Bayrou, feeding the continuing debate over which party should be regarded as the legitimate heir of the once-powerful UDF.

During the 2007 presidential poll, Morin split with then-UDF party chief Bayrou in order to endorse Sarkozy in the second-round of the election. Morin and a majority of UDF lawmakers created the New Centre party, while Bayrou founded the MoDem party.

The 2012 race is the first presidential contest in which Bayrou and Morin will directly test their contested legitimacy among voters. While Morin is considered a tacit ally of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, Bayrou has insisted on his independence vis-à-vis the UMP as well as the main opposition Socialist Party.

However, some of Bayrou’s opponents have labeled his neutrality a lack of commitment. Lepage, who left the MoDem party last year, called on Bayrou to take stronger positions ahead of the vote. “My choice has been made clear. I said I could not back Nicolas Sarkozy. Bayrou needs to tell voters where he stands,” Lepage told FRANCE 24 by phone on Monday.

UMP on the defensive

While the election campaigns by Bayrou and Lepage have so far drawn little attention from France’s mainstream parties on the right or left, Morin’s candidacy has sparked an immediate reaction from the Sarkozy camp.

Just hours after the leader of the New Center party declared his intention to run, Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand, a close ally of Sarkozy, called on both Morin and Bayrou to rally behind the incumbent, who is yet to make an official re-election bid.

“We need maximum unity,” Bertrand told LCI television, suggesting the ruling party expected Morin to eventually withdraw from the race. “Declaring one’s candidacy is one thing, continuing until the end is another,” he said.

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