PARIS: Judging from magazine covers and recent political books, there are only two candidates in France's presidential campaign: Nicolas Sarkozy, the feisty Gaullist interior minister, and Ségolène Royal, the inscrutable Socialist contender.
But as the nation's two main parties snipe at each other, a third candidate is quietly gaining ground in the center. François Bayrou, leader of the Union for French Democracy, whose presidential bid in 2002 barely registered, is emerging as a dark horse in this race.
"The French are tired of the left-right Ping-Pong match," Bayrou, 55, said at a recent campaign rally. "They want an alternative to the Ségo-Sarko duel."
Looks good on paper, but how much of a real chance will he have?
But with two and a half months to go to the first round of voting on April 22, such a duel still looks by far the most likely. Sarkozy and Royal are expected to sail into a May 6 run-off with 32 percent and 26 percent of the first-round vote respectively, the latest poll by the TNS Sofres institute indicates.
But 13 percent of voters told the pollster that they would cast their ballot for Bayrou, up from 9 percent two weeks ago and 7 percent throughout the autumn.
Looks like he has gained some ground, but more distance must be made up, if he is to have much of a chance. France is divided, much like America is divided. It's hard to imagine that a centrist candidate can unite two diametrically opposing forces.