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Sarkozy election hopes brighter after rival's exit

Oct 3, 2011, 6:37 a.m.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech during a medal ceremony for 'familles meritantes' (deserving families) at the Elysee Palace in Paris September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool

By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy's uncertain reelection prospects gained a small boost on Monday after popular former environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo, a centrist, said he would not run for president next April.

Borloo's decision, announced on Sunday, reduces the risk that the conservative vote will be splintered at Sarkozy's expense, although analysts cautioned against assuming moderate Borloo supporters would now rally behind the president.

Borloo, who said he did not believe he had enough support to make a realistic run, had been scoring 7-8 percent in opinion polls and could have eaten into support for Sarkozy in the first round of what promises to be a tough race against the main opposition Socialist Party.

Sarkozy, expected to announce later this year that he will seek a second term, will need every vote he can get to ensure far-right leader Marine Le Pen does not elbow him out of the second-round runoff between the two top candidates.

Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire, head of the ruling UMP party's election strategy, said he would contact Borloo in the coming week or two to see how he could work with the Sarkozy camp. "There's no room for division," Le Maire said.

After edging up in recent months, Sarkozy's popularity hit new lows in late September due to a series of scandals involving

former aides and friends, and the loss of Senate elections that underscored widespread disenchantment among voters.

Gael Sliman, director of the BVA polling institute, said opinion surveys showed Borloo supporters would not automatically switch to backing the president.

"It needs to be understood that in France there are voters on the center-right who just don't want to vote for Sarkozy, at least in the first round," he said.

Borloo has not yet told supporters whom he recommends they back in the election next April and May.

Sarkozy has alienated many moderates by trying to woo far-right voters with a hardline stance on security and immigration. Others are offended by his flashy, hyperactive style.

That could help another long-time centrist standard-bearer, Francois Bayrou, who is mulling another presidential bid.

The Socialists, ahead in polls for both presidential and parliamentary elections next year, hope Sarkozy may still fall before the second round.

"Voters need to know that it's the first round that will count in the presidential election of 2012," said Socialist favorite Francois Hollande, who is projected to win his party's primary contest later this month.

Opinion polls indicate Hollande would win the election if it were held today, with Sarkozy coming second, although the incumbent has only a slim edge over the National Front's Le Pen.

Sarkozy's arch-rival Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister, may also launch a centrist bid for the election on April 22 and May 6, with parliamentary polls to follow in June.

A poll published on Sunday found that 62 percent of voters believe Sarkozy would lose the election.

(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Catherine Bremer)

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