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PARIS (Reuters) - Twelve candidates, including far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and farmer-activist Jose Bove, will contest France's presidential election next month, the Constitutional Council said on Monday.
Candidates of smaller parties had complained bitterly that the larger parties were trying to squeeze them out of the election to shore up their own vote.
But the president of the Constitutional Council, Jean-Louis Debre, told reporters that Le Pen and Bove were among the candidates who had secured enough sponsor signatures to contest the first-round vote on April 22. The top two will go through to a second-round run-off on May 6.
In the last election in 2002, a record 16 candidates qualified to stand in the first round -- many of them on the left, which the Socialists said diluted support for their candidate, enabling Le Pen to qualify for the run-off.
Opinion polls suggest the 2007 election will be a three horse race between right-wing frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy, Socialist Segolene Royal and centrist leader Francois Bayrou.
Each presidential hopeful needed the endorsement of at least 500 of France's 42,000 elected officials to become an official candidate, with the Constitutional Council verifying the paperwork.
"In fact everyone found their signatures, and that is an expression of French pluralism and it is good," Bayrou told France 2 television, echoing remarks by Sarkozy.
Now that they have qualified to stand, the candidates from smaller parties are guaranteed the same television and radio air time as others, which could help them win more support.
"I think ... it was perfectly normal that a certain number of candidates have their signatures. I think the presidential election is a moment when the French should be able to think freely," Sarkozy told France 2.
Bove, the walrus-moustached scourge of fast-food chains and genetically modified crops, handed in his signatures on Friday but was not sure then he had met all the technical requirements.
"Now the real battle begins," Bove said in a statement after he was declared an official candidate.
"At stake is an electoral insurrection against economic liberalism," he said before listing his planned policies, which include banning companies that make a profit from sacking staff.
Royal said the Constitutional Council's announcement marked the start of a new phase.
"This new phase in the campaign is absolutely crucial because as of the moment when the list of candidates is published, there will be a psychological change among voters, who will now listen even more closely," she told reporters shortly before the list was announced.
Bayrou said he was in favour of a debate being held before the first-round vote, and Royal said she was "not hostile" to the idea. But Sarkozy said that as all 12 candidates now had to have the same air time, such a debate would be impractical.
"If Madame Royal wanted a debate, she should have done it sooner," Sarkozy said.
There is traditionally a debate between both candidates in the second-round run-off.
Additional reporting by Laure Bretton and Elizabeth Pineau