Just two months to go to the first round of France’s presidential election, probably the most significant world election of 2007. Coverage in the Australian media has been warming up, with an interesting piece on French intellectuals in Tuesday’s Age, following an astute preview by Jamie Button last Saturday.

In yesterday’s Australian, Patrick Morgan even tried to claim centre-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy as a latter-day disciple of B.A. Santamaria.

Most accounts, reasonably enough, paint it as a two-horse race between Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Segolene Royal. But we know from 2002 that the first round of voting can throw up surprises. Then, a divided left vote allowed the far-right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen to edge ahead of the Socialist candidate and go through to the second round, in which the combined left-right vote delivered Jacques Chirac more than 80%.

Le Pen is running again, but recent polls put him well behind his 2002 performance. But as the BBC reports, there is another candidate who could unexpectedly reach the second round: Francois Bayrou, of the centrist-liberal Union for French Democracy (UDF), currently placed third with 15%.

Bayrou’s advantage is that if he can make it into the second round, he will probably win: Sarkozy’s voters would prefer him to Royal, and vice versa. It’s something like the position the Australian Democrats once were in here. If they only could have got ahead of either Labor or the Liberals, they would have won a raft of lower house seats on preferences.

A run-off election is like an extended preferential vote, so Bayrou’s big task is to get ahead of either Sarkozy or Royal. Royal seems to be the easier target, so even though the UDF has traditionally lined up with the centre-right, Bayrou is pitching his appeal to the left, even suggesting he may appoint a Socialist prime minister.

As the BBC says, “The strength of Mr Bayrou’s insurgency remains unclear. He is capitalising on misgivings about his rivals rather than any groundswell of support.” But his message of reform through consensus is a tempting one.

The question is whether discontent with the partisan choices on offer will be strong enough to make him a serious contender.