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PARIS (Reuters) - Three-time candidate for the French presidency Francois Bayrou has become the man of the hour and a potential kingmaker in the 2012 race, even though his share of the vote has dwindled.
The lone centrist has little chance of reaching the May 6 runoff between the top two contenders, given the 10 percent that pollsters expect him to win, but his swing voters could provide a vital boost for President Nicolas Sarkozy to snatch victory.
Bayrou, 60, has so far rejected all attempts by either side to woo him, and says voters need to free themselves from the confines of "SarkoHollandisation" to create a new stable centre. But he has not ruled out serving as prime minister.
In seeking to overcome France's entrenched left and right, the centrist draws inspiration from Henry IV, the king who united France's warring Catholics and Protestants at the turn of the 17th century after bitter religious wars.
"We are here once again to seize the destiny of France," the former education minister and biographer of Henry IV proclaimed at his first campaign rally in January.
He served in government from 1993-97 under Presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac and is now leader of the Democratic Movement Party (MoDem), which he founded in 2007.
Despite his evocation of kings and national destiny, Bayrou is a low-key candidate with none of the intensity and bluster of the conservative Sarkozy, who is struggling to catch up with Socialist Francois Hollande in the crucial second round.
Bayrou has a reassuring, avuncular air and is teased by political caricurists for his large ears. He is methodical, contemplative and can be a long-winded public speaker.
Personally well-liked and respected, the ex-teacher is seen politically as a waffler in a country with a sharp traditional Left-Right divide. Pro-European, he has campaigned for years for balanced budgets, his top issue in this election.
Pollsters say Bayrou, standing fifth in the race, could influence the outcome if he backs one of the runoff candidates, as he has pledged to do, and if his supporters follow his lead, which is less certain. Polls suggest they are almost evenly split between Sarkozy and Hollande at present.
When not on the campaign trail, the self-proclaimed man of the land -- a father of six and practising Roman-Catholic who married wife Elisabeth at age 20 -- breeds racehorses at his ancestral home in Borderes in the southwest of France.
Born on May 25, 1951 in the town where his father farmed and served as mayor, he grew up reading books around the table with his family.
Bayrou was dubbed "the orator" at school for his gift with words but developed a stutter at age seven or eight. He has said that handicap, which he eventually mastered, made him more determined to succeed and more sensitive to others.
He studied classical literature and worked as a teacher before entering politics. In his 30-year career, he has been an MP for the Pyrenees Atlantiques department in southern France almost consistently since 1986. He ran in his first presidential election in 2002.
In the 2007 race, Bayrou became known as "the third man" in the contest between Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal, capturing 19 percent of the first-round vote.
Reporting By Alexandria Sage