François Bayrou, the extreme centre's champion

Patrice de Beer
12 March 2007

Jacques Chirac has, as expected, gracefully announced that he won't stand for a third term in the forthcoming presidential elections, thus putting an end to his forty years in French politics. There will be time after the polls to discuss his legacy, which his own emotional speech on Sunday 11 March 2007 described through rose-tinted glasses, but which history might judge quite differently. The stage is now ready for the first-round battle, culminating on 22 April. So far, Chirac the maverick has avoided anointing as his successor his interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy - candidate for the president's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) - saying only that he will make his "personal choice" known in due time.

Nothing close to an enthusiastic endorsement, then, and this too is no surprise, as the two men share a long hatred: for they are too similar to like each other, each a political killer with unbound ambitions, ready to make all sorts of contradictory promises to all sorts of people. At the same time they are so different: Chirac with his political and populist flair, Sarkozy from a traditional rightwing politician's mould, closely linked to business and prone to play the "I" (immigration) card. But if Sarkozy has imposed himself as the official successor to Chirac, the outgoing president might - deep inside himself - pine for another candidate, one with whom he probably shares more values: centrist François Bayrou, whose political comeback in this campaign has astonished everyone.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Among Patrice de Beer’s articles in openDemocracy:

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(November 2005)

"France's immigration myths"
(9 February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

"France’s crisis after crisis"
( April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"Indigènes: enlarging France's history" (October 2006)

"Ségolène Royal: the power of difference"
( November 2006)

"French politics: where extremes meet"
(4 December 2006)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate"
(20 December 2006)

"France’s immigration politics"
(12 February 2006)

"Why is the left so gauche?"
(26 February 2007)

The Bayrou option

When I started writing this piece for openDemocracy the theme was: who is François Bayrou, the number-three candidate in the French presidential election behind Sarkozy and socialist Ségolène Royal? But, within days, a single opinion poll has changed the situation by putting Bayrou and Royal on a par with 23% (a 4% increase for Bayrou and a 2.5% decrease for Royal), just behind the interior minister (at 28%, a 1% decrease).

The sudden rise of the candidate of the "extreme centre" has been phenomenal. If he were to be one of the two leading candidates on 22 April, he would thereby become the favourite for the second round on 6 May, with the best chance of defeating either of his rivals - thanks to support from the left against "Sarko" or from the right against "Ségo". He is Royal's worse fear for the first round, from which she could be ousted, just like socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin was in 2002; but he is also Sarkozy's nightmare for the second round, as all polls predict that Bayrou would win a two-headed race, thanks t0 help from leftwing voters. Who said that French politics, even if it can look too parochial and navel-gazing for many, could not be exciting?

Who is Francois Bayrou? An uncharismatic, devout Roman Catholic, pro-European farmer (he raises horses in southwest France) whose dull and traditional political career within the right-of-centre political family - from MP to minister then head of the Union pour la Démocratie française (UDF) - never raised enthusiasm. After a few years in power during the presidence of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the UDF became the UMP's junior partner before being reduced in 2002 to a rump party when most of its MPs were seduced or coerced to merge with the UMP.

Bayrou - who fought hard to overcome a childhood stutter to be able to make public speeches - then refused to accept Chirac's diktat, and became a political outcast who and fought to retain his freedom. So this moderate centrist, who had always voted with the right and had said he would never govern with the socialists, reinvented himself as a rebel - a 21st-century Asterix, the famous comic-book hero, the last Gaul fighting the Romans in the last village yet to be conquered - and went as far as joining the Parti Socialiste (PS) in a vote of no-confidence against the Dominique de Villepin government. It was for him a matter of survival. Yet he remained the odd man out, about whom Sarkozy had said: "The left has no consideration for him and the right don't talk to him anymore".

Now, having quadrupled his stand in opinion polls in a few weeks, he has overtaken the eternal candidate of the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as the main challenger to what both men call the "duet" of French politics, the UMP and the PS - thus forcing Sarko and Ségo at last to take him seriously. Yet he is for them the most difficult enemy to tackle, as he stubbornly refuses to be stuck in the classical left-right struggle.

This struggle is passé, Bayrou says: both sides have failed to solve France's problems, and the time has come for "national unity" behind a moderate president who would unite the best of both sides in a coalition government under him. Like the Gross Koalition in Germany, he hopes; like Italy's messy coalitions, or France's own ephemeral alliances in the fourth-republic era (1944-58), his rivals fear. But any frontal opposition to Bayrou - despite, or because of, the fact that he has a very sketchy and a friendly catch-all platform - runs the risk of being counterproductive, of being seen as justifying his mantra that France is sick of this never-ending left-right rivalry.

But even more important is the fact that François Bayrou has become, for the first time in modern French history, an acceptable representative for protest votes. Until now, those many French voters dissatisfied with the system had voted for the extremes: for decades the Communist Party - which still represented 15% of the voters in 1980, and now manages around 2% - had played that role, later replaced by Le Pen's National Front. In the 2002 presidential elections, the far left and the greens had gathered 25.7% of the votes behind seven candidates, against 16.8% for Le Pen. As divided as before, la gauche de la gauche (the left of the left) barely reaches 10% today (see "Why is the left so gauche?", 26 February 2007).

To these disgruntled, Bayrou offers a moderate, friendly option; even better, rather than being confined in extremist ghettoes - extreme left or right - excluding themselves from power, the disillusioned, disenfranchised now have found a champion with a chance of achieving power. Not by promising revolution for tomorrow, or a hard, racist, anti-immigration regime, but a consensual government, inclusive and not exclusive; appealing on what is best in man and woman, not on fanning their wildest fears.

This user-friendly platform has so far worked remarkably well. The far left - who thought they represented France's political momentum after the failure of the 2005 referendum on the European constitution - has lost 60% of its support. On the left, those who hate their own candidate more than they love their party; those who still can't adjust to the idea of having a female candidate, not to speak of a president in a political world which remains heavily macho; those who think that she is too much to the right or to the left - all are succumbing to Bayrou's idealistic appeal to the upper and talking classes. On the right, those who find Sarkozy's too rightwing, too opportunist or too prone to curry the favours of the extreme right might also be tempted by a clean moderate candidate.

The third man's chances

Today the king and queen of the campaign are naked. Both are obliged to fight back, to reinvent themselves: maybe even to go back to basics. Ségolène Royal originally built her appeal on a more left-of-centre touch - even quoting Tony Blair or admitting some of the failures of the thirty-five-hour week - before again heeding the party line thanks to the PS stalwarts' pressure. Nicolas Sarkozy started by preaching a "rupture" with Chirac's time - while remaining a member of his government - in place of an ultra-liberal, law-and-order platform, before moderating his rhetoric to obtain wider support; he talked about slashing the number of civil servants by replacing only 50% of those retiring, before choosing to exclude from his list teachers, health workers, and police. In different ways, both have thus opened the road for Bayrou's centrist "revolution".

Will Bayrou succeed in his crusade and blow France's political world apart? It is too early to say. France remains a very divided country with an electorate that often makes up its mind in the last days before the vote. The official campaign has yet to start and Bayrou's support remains very unstable, while Ségo and "Sarko" can each count on a solid basis of around a quarter of the voters. But whether he succeeds or fails, his dream of "national unity" could endure and his optimistic formula remain as an alternative if France's next president proves unable to turn the country around.

Jacques Chirac is leaving his country weaker, poorer, more disunited and with a lower morale than when he entered the Elysée palace; politicians' credibility too is at rock-bottom, and this has allowed François Bayrou to appear as the first, unlikely champion of a new breed of politicians ready to shed ideological blinkers. In words, at least: for there is no doubt that, if Royal and Sarkozy were indeed to face each other on 6 May for the decisive second round of the election, most of Bayrou's voters would vote as they always have - with the right.

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