For the first time in France’s presidential campaign, the centrist Francois Bayrou, who has been gaining by leaps and bounds in the polls for weeks, is now neck-and-neck with the Socialist Segolene Royal in a new poll for the weekly Journal de Dimanche released today. Taken by the IFOP polling institute — in my view the most reliable of the four major French pollsters — it shows Bayrou and Royal both at 23% in the first round of the voting which begins on April 22, with the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy at 28% and neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen at 13%.
Just yesterday, Le Monde reported that the Socialists resident polling expert, Gerald Gall, had warned party leaders that Bayrou defeating Royal for a place in the runoff was a distinct possibility. And the leader of the party’s left wing, Senator Jean-Luc Melanchon, issued a cry of panic, declaring that “the powerful rise of Bayrou in the polls risks turning the entire political landscape upside-down,” and that it was, for the Socialists, “time to act” in light of Bayrou’s impressive advances. But Royal’s campaign manager, Jean-Louis Bianco, declared today that Royal “would not change her campaign” in light of the Bayrou threat, even though all the latest polls show her support continuing to decline.
The showing by Bayrou — leader of the small UDF party founded in the ’70s by former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing — is indeed remarkable, considering he got less than 7% of the vote in the last presidential election in 2002. When President Jacques Chirac scrapped the conservative Gaullist RPR party that had brought him to power and replaced it 2002 with a new party, the UMP (Union for a Presidential Majority as it was first called, now the Union for a Popular Movement), he not only merged into it the hard-line, free-market, Milton Friedman-style economic conservatives of the Democratie Liberale party led by Alain Madelin, but seduced a chunk of Bayrou’s UDF by giving cabinet posts to some of its best-known figures (notably among the UDFers he bought off: Chirac made the soufflÃ©-light Philippe Douste-Blazy, (known as “Doux Blah-Blah,” or “Sweet Nothings,” in Le Canard EnchainÃ©) his Foreign Minister. But these defections had one advantage: they removed Bayrou’s rivals in the UDF and left him able to run the party with a firm hand. As a result, Bayrou — who had, after all, been Chirac’s Minister of Education in conservative Prime Minister Alain JuppÃ©’s government from 1993 until the Socialist parliamentary victory in 1997 — turned fiercely on Chirac, and has been a constant critic of the outgoing president for the last several years. Last May, Bayrou led 10 UDF deputies in the National Assembly in voting for a motion of censure of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s conservative government.
A former professor of French literature and the author of a number of historical works (including a best-selling biography of King Henri IV), Bayrou is viewed with some sympathy by many left voters for his consistent vocal opposition to Le Pen and his criticism of Sarkozy’s verbal anti-immigrant extremism. Indeed, Bayrou caused a major split in his party in the late ’90s when he opposed any presidents of regional governments who owed their election to accepting the votes of regional council members from Le Pen’s Front National party. An attractive and articulate TV presence, Bayrou has a carefully cultivated image of franc-parler, or plain speaking — for example, he is the only presidential candidate this year who has made a major campaign issue out of France’s crushing national debt and budget deficits — that goes down well to voters turned off by the traditional langue de bois, or wooden language, spoken by the political classes.
This year, Bayrou has been attacking the “failed traditional right-left cleavage” in French politics, and has been aggressively courting the left electorate, going so far as to say that, if elected president, he would likely appoint a prime minister from the left. And he hinted at his choice by publicly praising Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the leader of the Socialist Party’s right wing who was Finance Minister in the Lionel Jospin government. Just a few days ago Strauss-Kahn, under pressure from Segolene Royal and her domestic partner Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party’s boss, was forced to declare to the press that he would not accept becoming Prime Minister under Bayrou. At the same time, on Friday Strauss-Kahn proposed a “new majority coalition” for the Socialists, jettisoning the Communists and Greens (both stagnant in the polls at 2% or less of the vote this year in the polls) who had been part of the governing “plural left” coalition created by the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, in favor of an alliance with Bayrou and the centrist UDF. It’s an open secret that there is no love lost between Strauss-Kahn and Royal, and despite his active campaigning for her the wily Strauss-Kahn is clearly keeping his options open.
Because Sarkozy is detested by the left as an anti-civil libertarian who has courted Le Pen’s electorate by aggressively playing the race card with his tough line on immigrants, and who is committed to a “rupture” with the welfare state and with the mixed economy, the Socialist leaders, and in particular the party’s elected officials, are scared to death of recent polls showing Bayrou capable of defeating Sarkozy in a runoff while Royal loses to him — fears that have been widely reported by the press.. And the more that the impression is created that Bayrou would be a stronger candidate against Sarkozy than Royal, the greater is the likelihood that more and more left voters will desert Royal for Bayrou in order to block Sarkozy. Already Bayrou is drawing as many votes from the left as from the right in the opinion polls.
Moreover, as Le Monde noted yesterday in an article on Bayrou’s impressive rise in the polls, the opinion surveys this year show that voters who say they’ll vote for a left candidate in the first round of voting are only between 32* % and 36% — the lowest number since 1969, when polls showed just 31% for the left in the first round. And in 1969, the left was shut out of the runoff, leaving a duel between President Georges Pompidou and the centrist Alain Poher. Will that history repeat itself this year?
Royal’s centrist campaign, and her law-and-order, family-values pandering to some of the favorite themes of Sarkozy, means she hasn’t convinced enough voters that she is all that different on issues from him, which has helped Bayrou’s rise. And she wasn’t helped when Le Canard EnchainÃ© recently revealed that both the Royal-Hollande couple and Sarkozy had cheated the tax-man by underestimating the value of the property they own to avoid the special French tax on the wealthy.
And Bayrou has been making all the right moves. For example, when Sarkozy this week — in a blatant appeal to Le Pen’s electorate — promised to create a new “Ministry of Immigration and National Identity,” Bayrou immediately reacted with a strong denunciation of Sarkozy for “crossing the line” and linking the two concepts in a thinly-veiled racist appeal. So Bayrou’s rapid response dominated the news cycle on the issue — while it took the cautious Socialist Royal several days before she managed to criticize Sarkozy’s proposal, and in terms more tepid than Bayrou’s (and her statement came well after all the civil rights and anti-racist organizations had already flayed Sarkozy for his demagogic proposal.) And moves by Bayrou like this attack on Sarkozy have helped many voters overlook or forgive Bayrou’s long record as part of the right, and his participation in the Chirac-led conservative coalition.
Another problem for the Socialists: The feeble showing this year by the tiny Trotskyist parties of the extreme left, which together won 10.4% of the 2002 first round vote by winning Socialist voters disillusioned with the Jospin government and thus helped make Le Pen’s defeat of Royal that year possible. Those parties — as well as independent “left of the left” candidate Jose Bove, the anti-globalization and environmental leader; the Green Party candidate Dominique Voynet; and the Communists’ Marie-Georges Buffet — are all stuck this year at around 2% or less in the polls. This means, as Le Monde puts it, that “the conundrum which now perturbs the Socialist leadership is: how to simultaneously rally all of the reduced left electorate [including voters for the left-of-the-left parties] while at the same time appealing to the voters attracted by the centrist, and have enough votes in reserve for Royal to win the run-off” — assuming, of course, that she is in it. And that simultaneous appeal to the radical left and the center is a complicated tap-dance to pull off for Royal, who is dismissed by many of those who served with her in government as an intellectual light-weight who refuses to study the dossiers on issues.
Around 40% of the French who say they intend to vote still haven’t made their choice. It’s a traditional rule in political polling that undecideds usually break to the challenger. But this year, while Sarkozy is part of the current government as Interior Minister and is president of the governing UMP party, voters have been hammered by the media for the past year with the inevitability of a Sarkozy-Royal runoff so that it is Bayrou who is positioned psychologically as the challenger, not Royal.
In 2002, the Socialists were shut out of the presidential runoff by Le Pen. Now there is the very real possibility of a replay of 2002 — except this time, it is the centrist Bayrou who threatens to defeat the Socialist candidate for a place in the runoff against Sarkozy. A runoff which Bayrou could just win.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, see my previous reports on France’s 2007 elections::
February 22, “Segolene Royal in Free-Fall”
February 9, “France: Bad News for the Left”;
February 1, “Jose Bove Complicates the Contest”
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared March 10, 2007.