This month France’s centre/right voters will decide who will represent them in next year’s presidential elections – and François Bayrou, leader of MoDem, the Mouvement Démocrate, has called on supporters to back Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé in a bid to avoid splitting the centre vote. Mr Bayrou, 65, has already fought three presidential elections and says he will only stand in 2017 if his enemy, Nicolas Sarkozy, beats Mr Juppé to be the candidate for Les Républicains. He said he would then be obliged to “exercise my rights and fulfil my duty to the people”.
However, his position has not been helped by a weakening of support for his party and the loss of members of his inner circle, with two party vice-presidents leaving.
One, Robert Rochefort, was forced to step down after being arrested for indecent exposure but the more damaging loss was that of Jean Lassalle, a life long friend and MP in Pyrénées-Atlantiques, who is so disenchanted he is running for president himself.
Mr Lassalle, 60, said: “I could not continue with Bayrou. Things hadn’t worked for 30 years and they are not going to work now. We’d come to the end of our time together. However, I really did think, 10 years ago, that we would reach the end side by side.
“The world has changed during the last two mandates with Sarkozy and Hollande. We cannot say that we have solutions when they really are not solutions!”
Long-time MoDem member Stéphane Delabre, now one of the disenchanted, said: “Bayrou has and is trying to be the third man, a third force between the two traditional parties, left and right.”
As former head of cabinet for Mr Bayrou’s close friend Pas-de-Calais Senator Jean-Marie Vanlerenberghe, Mr Delabre admitted to disappointment that MoDem was not as strong as centrist parties in other European countries.
“He was, I would say, pioneering at the beginning; maybe even too much! He was not understood by the French people. But as he has been saying the same thing for so long, others have taken his place.”
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Mr Bayrou does not agree, saying on Twitter “MoDem has an important role to play in politics and it will prove so during the next elections”.
Mr Delabre, however, said a major part of the problem relates to the 2012 presidential election when Mr Bayrou supported François Hollande in the second round.
“Bayrou merged the centrist parties to form MoDem but when he called to vote Hollande, this swerve towards the left was quite shocking, especially as historically, the centre/right candidates support the right.”
That call cost him dear: the same year rival centrist group UDI, Union des Démocrates et Indépendants, was created and another of his disenchanted friends, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, is its president.
Ludovic Bousquet, vice-president of the UDI in Gironde, left the party at that time. He said: “There are hardly any real differences between the two main parties, only strategic differences. I decided not to renew my MoDem membership and join the UDI.
“Many people do not know this, but the UDI is the third party, by far, with the highest number of MPs after Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste.”
Mr Bayrou has run for the presidency three times, in 2002, 2007 and 2012, but from taking almost 19% of the votes in 2007 he slumped to just 9% in the 2012 first round. Mr Bousquet said: “He should have continued what he was doing in 2007, he could have had a chance of winning!”
Since then Mr Bayrou’s biggest success has been to become mayor of Pau in 2014, having previously been an MP for the region since the start of his career in 1986.
Despite the falling number of votes MoDem wins in each election, Mr Bayrou is still seen as one of the most popular French politicians. Mr Bousquet said: “The most popular person will not necessarily pass the first voting round. This is the challenge the centre has to overcome but has never managed to do.
“When you belong to the centre you are not far from the two sides – but when it comes to voting, electors prefer to stay in their own camps.”
A family man, Mr Bayrou and wife Elisabeth, a classics teacher, have six children and commentators say he, himself, is not the problem, but rather the party, as an elitist organisation.
Mr Delabre said its problem was having “many liberal professions involved” with “no working class nucleus like other parties” and everyone wanting to have a say. “The party has never been a war machine. It is not like Sarkozy and his party.”
Mr Bousquet agreed, saying: “Those who belong to the centre reason things through more than other parties, but belonging to the centre does not mean you are soft, just moderate!”
In his book, La France Solidaire, published in 2012 as his election manifesto, Mr Bayrou praises the “values of the Republic” but added that liberty, equality, and fraternity made it hard to deal with “Realpolitiks, the politics of the reality”.
Earlier, writing 18 months into Mr Sarkozy’s mandate, in 2009, another book, Abus de pouvoir, he revealed his hatred for his rival’s lust for power.
He describes his animosity as like “Rome against Carthage or Athens against Sparta”, rather than personal hatred but the portrait he paints of an egocentric, ignorant, childlike person may provoke different ideas.
On Alain Juppé he says: “Many people find him annoying, but I find him interesting. Introvert. Extrovert. Abrupt. Emotional. Wanting to escape the political universe that he knows is nothing but mediocre”.
Political commentator Emmanuel Rivière, of pollsters TNS-Sofres, told Europe 1: “In backing Alain Juppé, François Bayrou clarified the divide that is opening up between the two rights, one turned towards the centre the other towards the very right-wing.
“As such, François Bayrou is certainly not a handicap for Alain Juppé.”
Polls have shown that while Mr Sarkozy draws his support from the right, Mr Juppé is backed overwhelmingly by centre voters and Mr Bayrou’s views carry real weight with them.
Mr Rivière said Mr Bayrou was “moral support” for Mr Juppé: “He always appears, rightly or wrongly, as anti-system, fighting both media and parties. Right now, there is an appetite for change. François Bayrois is a guarantee of honesty and courage.”
Looking to the 2017 election, Mr Bayrou seems isolated. However, one hypothesis could see results: if Mr Sarkozy is chosen as centre-right candidate and François Hollande also stands again, he could gain from the general public disdain for the two candidates. Voters could be seduced by a more moderate candidate. “Plan B”, as they say, “is Bayrou”.
Indeed, philosopher Michel Onfray predicts the final vote could be Mr Bayrou against Marine Le Pen... “and Bayrou will win hands down!”