Candidate François Bayrou
Connexion edition: April 2007
There is nothing a French electorate dislikes more than the sense that it has been imposed upon, presented with some immutable pre-determined choice. This could partially account for the sudden rise in popularity of François Bayrou. Bayrou predicted from the word go that he would be what he described as a “constructive surprise” in the election.
In an unprecedented situation where four candidates (Royal, Sarkozy, Bayrou and Le Pen) are expected to score percentages comfortably into double figures, it is Bayrou’s presence at the high table that is most unexpected. After starting as a rank outsider, he passed to near equal terms with the frontrunners with a chance of becoming the sixth President of the Fifth Republic. Such success for a leader of a small party with only a handful of representatives at the national level is not precluded by the French presidential system in the way it is by the British parliamentary one. It last occurred as recently as 1974 with the election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, member at the time of an obscure and now long-forgotten independent republican party. None of the three main parties can lay any grand claim to historical governance and since French governments are often more pluralistic than British ones, membership of a small party does not prevent the acquisition of government experience.
Bayrou served as Minister of Education in the governments of both Edouard Balladur and Alain Juppé and only abstained by his own choice from participation in later Chirac administrations. He may not be a politician whose ideas are likely to electrify but, during his years as UDF leader, Bayrou has shown qualities of courage (in resisting incorporation in the UMP) and independence (in avoiding too close a political alliance with it) as well as a good deal of fighting spirit.
In the 2002 election he showed ability as a campaigner and emerged to general surprise as the highest placed of the minor candidates. There are other factors behind his rise.
This election is the first since 1995 where there has been no major gaulliste or neo-gaulliste candidate.
The sarkozyste right represents a sharp break with their tradition in espousing neo-liberalism (neo-conservatism) and a strongly Atlanticist approach to foreign affairs. This means that Bayrou has been able to fly the republican flag and to some extent occupy the vacant niche. He may be a politician of the right but he is no ultra-liberal and has laid strong emphasis throughout the campaign on the central role of the state.
He is a fervent European and occasionally betrays a certain naivety in that regard but this still contrasts strongly with Sarkozy’s fulsome admiration for the American system. It is also perhaps some sort of guarantee of continued independence in French foreign policy even if that is conceived in a pan-European rather than a purely national context. In domestic affairs, Bayrou has promised relatively little at a far lower projected cost compared to the other main candidates. What predominates in his campaign is the emphasis on constitutional reform - a more accountable parliamentary system, on budgetary prudence - an end to deficit budgeting and on support for small business - involving a significant employment incentive.
It was the weaknesses in the other campaigns that initially contributed most to his success and it was his scathing attacks on the cosy relations between the two main parties, the media and the establishment in general that first attracted public attention. To this he has added a pledge, in practice also a necessity, to form a broad government independent of “party”, something very much in the republican gaulliste tradition. Bayrou certainly benefits from a good deal of tactical support (especially from those on the left whose main concern is the defeat of Sarkozy) but it would be unjust to put his success down solely to negative factors. He has also quite simply fought the best, and the best paced, campaign.
While Sarkozy and Royal both started on an unsustainable high and have progressively lost ground, Bayrou has seemed steadily more impressive as the campaign progressed.
Sarkozy made the error of starting to promote his candidature while still a government minister some four years before the event and predictably peaked too early. Royal throughout her campaign has been in a quandary as to whether to stress her difference (and risk seeming lightweight) or mobilise all her colleagues (and risk seeming too much a creature of her party).
In the event she has simply alternated uncertainly between the two modes.
Bayrou by contrast has built his campaign step by step with complete consistency, making the most of all his opportunities and scoring points at each of his public appearances. He has certainly profited from the over-mediatisation of his rivals and from the electorate’s dislike of faits accomplis. His promise of an administration of all the talents has not always entirely convinced but it is a viable alternative. He has profited too by the very modesty of his own proposals at a time when his rivals seemed intent on covering too much political ground and being all things to all people. Both Sarko and Ségo (now an inseparable double-act in the public mind) have harped continually on abstract values (rupture, justice, order, authority, family etc) in slogans that went stale as quickly as French bread. Their actual policies have become lost in the background noise.
Those they are most closely associated with (selective immigration, positive discrimination, direct democracy, classroom discipline) all evoke rather ambiguous responses. Bayrou’s proposals are not sexy but they have the great virtue of being simple to understand and cheap and easy to implement. To an electorate weary of disappointments they sound honest and credible.