As expected, the two finalists in France’s presidential election have been desperately courting the support of centrist Francois Bayrou, whose 18.6% of the vote in the first round would be enough to swing the runoff if he decisively favored one candidate or the other.

But yesterday, in a much-anticipated press conference (“En attendant Bayrou” was the news headline beforehand – “Waiting for Bayrou”), Bayrou announced that he would definitely not be endorsing either centre-right front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy or Socialist Segolene Royal. The most he will do is say how he personally intends to vote, but for now he says he has not made up his mind.

Bayrou’s reasons for rejecting both left and right are worth considering, because they say a great deal about the state of European politics today. (See reports here in French and here in English.)

Sarkozy, Bayrou said, has a “taste for intimidation and menace”, and his election would mean “a concentration of power like never before”. Royal, on the other hand, although more of a democrat, would “multiply state intervention”, and her economic program would “go in exactly the opposite direction to what France needs”.

Bayrou’s dilemma is the dilemma of liberals across much of the world. He supports reforms that would drag the over-regulated French economy towards the free market, but he cannot trust the politicians of the right to make them without dividing society and damaging the institutions of democracy.

Royal, behind in the polls, has made the risky offer of a public debate with Bayrou to examine their differences and try to reach common ground. Bayrou accepted, and made a similar offer to Sarkozy, who rejected the idea.

Both Royal and Sarkozy have a difficult game to play. As well as reaching out to the centre, they simultaneously need to consolidate support on their own extremist wings: in Royal’s case, the 10% or so who supported one of the assorted communists, trotskyists and ecologists known as the “anti-liberal left”; for Sarkozy, the larger but more toxic bloc who voted for the far right.

Meanwhile, Bayrou says he is reconstituting his Union for French Democracy as a new “Democratic Party”, which will provide a genuine centre option in June’s legislative elections.

If he can edge France down the path of economic reform without autocracy, and democracy without interventionist government, he will set an example that other countries would do well to heed.