François Bayrou, the veteran centrist candidate for the French presidency, is at last shaking off his label as the ‘third man’ of French politics. But not in the way he would want. Currently languishing in fifth place in the polls, behind both hard-left Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon and Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, Bayrou is a victim of the vicissitudes of France’s polarising two-round electoral system. While polls show he could beat either Nicholas Sarkozy or Socialist front-runner François Hollande in the second round, he doesn’t have enough support of his own to get past the first.
Although only 60 (relatively young in French political terms), Bayrou seems to have been around for donkey’s years. Originally an acolyte of Valérie Giscard d’Estaing (President from 1974 to 1981), he was education minister in the centre-right governments of Edouard Balladur and Alain Juppé (now Sarkozy’s foreign minister) between 1993 and 1997, before forming his own political party, Mouvement Democratique (popularly known as Modem) and coming third in the 2007 election with a respectable 18.7% of the vote. The 2012 campaign is his third tilt at the top job and now looks likely to be his least successful.
The apparent failure of Bayrou’s campaign is something of a mystery. He remains a popular and trusted politician, and his frank – some would say apocalyptic – assessment of the situation facing France (‘the explosion of French political life is fatal’) finds favour with many voters unconvinced by the sunny uplands promised by left or right. With Sarkozy lurching to the right to counter the FN, and Hollande moving left to check Mélanchon’s rise (proposing a 75% top rate of tax on very high incomes for example), Bayrou should be going great guns. But he seems unable to gain any traction and has now sunk below 10% in the polls.
One of Bayrou’s problems is that while he is seen a political heavyweight, his party is not. Modem is very much his own political hobby-horse; it’s basically him and handful of faithful lieutenants. For older readers, there is more than a bit of David Owen about François Bayrou. Even if he were to win the presidency, Modem stands no chance of winning the parliamentary elections that will follow in June. President Bayrou would be forced to cobble together a majority from moderate elements on the left and right. Bayrou has tried to make virtue out of this, saying his explicit political project is to end bipolarisation, but he is swimming against the tide of history and France’s electoral system. More likely France would end up with the kind of dangerous instability which is the exact opposite of what Bayrou says it needs.
Bayrou also has a credibility problem of his own. While he has been rapier-like in exposing the unreality of some of the promises made by Sarkozy and Hollande, he is often evasive and vague when it comes to specific solutions of his own. He has issued blood-curdling warnings about France’s deficits in trade and the public finances, but his solutions – a ‘Made in France’ campaign and that old stand-by, ‘efficiencies’ in public spending – don’t seem to add up to much. ‘It is not the job of the president of the Republic to cut,’ he said recently. ‘It’s not so much a question of cutting as of not spending one euro more.’
Bayrou’s offer seems to boil down to little more than ‘trust me, you can rely on me to do the right thing’. He has expressed his admiration for the unelected ‘technocratic’ prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti, saying he would hope to nominate a prime minister in a similar vein. But technocrate is more often used as an insult than a compliment in France, and the idea of a unelected banker-type moving into the Matignon is anathema to many voters, even on the right.
But Bayrou is still in the political game, and like a poker player he keeps his cards close to his chest. His ten percent could hold the key to the outcome of the second round on 6 May, but Bayrou refuses point-blank to say whether he will back Sarkozy or Hollande, or whether he would join a government under either candidate. In 2007, Bayrou enigmatically said he ‘would not vote for Sarkozy’, but refused to explicitly endorse the socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal. Sarkozy hinted recently that if re-elected his next prime minister might not be from his own party, a move seen as a carrot to Modem supporters. Bayrou held several meetings with Hollande last year and said the socialist candidate had ‘a vision of the future which resembles my own’. Now he says Hollande went too far to the left in order secure the nomination of his party.
So will Bayrou choose sides after 22 April? ‘This time, it will be necessary to declare ourselves for the second round. We will have a clear choice,’ Bayrou promised last July. This week, he’s back to equivocating: ‘I can simply tell you that I will fulfil my responsibilities’. To govern is to choose, they say, which is why Bayrou will probably end up governing nothing and passing another five years hoping the next political upheaval will make the cards fall his way. For the third man, it might still be fourth time lucky. But don’t hold your breath.
In his own words
‘I think that the only majority which can get the country out of the crisis is an alliance of social democrats, centrists and progressive republicans. The other two majorities available to us today, PS + Mélanchon on one side, Sarkozy + flirtation with the far right on the other, are not durable majorities. They cannot face up to our problems.’
On the economic crisis
‘The future of our French social and republican model is at stake. For me, France is heading towards the worst crisis for at least fifty years…This will be played out in terms of months and perhaps in terms of weeks.’
On choosing between Sarkozy and Hollande
‘Entering on this question means allowing myself to be dragged towards one side or the other, which is not my intention…You will not draw me onto this territory.’
On public spending
‘I say: zero increase in money terms, which will allow inflation and economic growth to refloat the boat, like the rising tide.’
On his decline in the polls
‘It’s not normal. Maybe you’re not doing your job.’
On Sarkozy’s campaign
‘It’s a campaign under the influence of those who think and believe the main electoral reserves are on the fringes of the far right.’
Excerpts from François Bayrou’s interview with Libération, 11 April 2012