Ségolène Royal’s faltering presidential campaign was dealt a further blow on Monday as François Hollande, the leader of her Socialist party and father of her children, admitted he was worried she would be knocked out in the first round of France’s election next month.

The comments underlined how worried Ms Royal’s campaign team is about the surprise surge in opinion polls by François Bayrou, candidate of the centrist UDF party, who has caught up with her in opinion polls and been dubbed the third man of the campaign.

Mr Hollande evoked the memory of the socialists’ disastrous performance in the last presidential elections, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came second, eliminating Lionel Jospin, the former prime minister.

He said: “I’ve considered for a long time the prospect of another April 21st” – the date of the last election.

Mr Bayrou, who analysts say is collecting support from voters dissatisfied with the two mainstream party candidates, came level with Ms Royal in a poll published at the weekend.

Analysts interpreted Mr Hollande’s admission as an attempt to rally wavering Socialist voters by reminding them of the risks of her losing if they did not back her in the first round.

Nicolas Sarkozy, candidate of the ruling centre-right UMP party, has also seen Mr Bayrou erode his polling figures. On Monday he won the official backing of Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister and protégé of Jacques Chirac, the outgoing president.

The latest poll, published yesterday by Le Figaro, gave Mr Sarkozy 27 per cent, against 25.5 per cent for Ms Royal and 23 per cent for Mr Bayrou. Mr Le Pen was fourth with 12 per cent.

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