Molière would have enjoyed the two-act comédie française that constitutes this year’s French presidential-election campaigns. In the first act alone, the attractive, aristocratic, Hillary-esque candidate of the Left has hit the skids, a pro-American candidate has taken the lead, and a guy nobody took seriously eight weeks ago is now commanding the headlines.
All of this is leading up to act two, which begins with France’s April 22 first-round vote, when more than a dozen candidates will be reduced to the two who will face voters on May 6. Until last month, the biggest spectacle has been watching the deflation of the once buoyant campaign of the Socialist candidate from Stepford, Ségolène Royal. Royal is a lovely woman with a “partner” even more ambitious and unelectable than she is–Socialist party leader Francois Holland. She’s an énarque, a member of the ruling élite, and as befitting a modern Socialist, she has a vague message (she thinks people should be involved in politics), except when speaking as the loony leftist that she is (then she says money is her enemy). Her campaign has ground into reverse, causing even traditional Socialist supporters to run for cover.
Royal may be hard on the ears, but she’s easy on the eyes–a quality that is frankly not shared by the frontrunner, Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, the candidate of the ruling Gaullist UMP. Sarkozy looks as grimly no-nonsense as many of his campaign positions sound; he unapologetically advocates things that French voters seem to find frighteningly exotic, yet strangely appealing–providing incentives for hard work, creating a foreign policy predicated on global realities, an awareness of the immigration and demographic problems faced by the nation. That he should have taken the lead and so far not surrendered it is a little political miracle in a hugely secular land where the conventional response to big problems is to ignore them and obsess on America instead.
But the man of the moment is Francois Bayrou, the UDF candidate. In the electoral skit that so far has focused on the tedious spat between the beauty on the left and the beast on the right, he’s the guy who falls out of the closet and lands in the middle of the action. It’s this, and not, as l’Express reports, the imminent departure of the big clown who has long dominated these farces, that’s made the audience sit up and pay attention to the plot.
Bayrou, a one-time education minister, is a familiar in French politics, usually seen as a marginal and ineffective player. In 2002, he refused to join Chirac’s coalition, causing many UDF stalwarts to desert, and instead he volunteered for political irrelevancy. As the Times’s Charles Bremner notes, his fate was to be the protest candidate for those who couldn’t stomach voting for ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. But this week, Bayrou rode a ten-week rise in the polls to reach the 20 percent marker considered magical by French pollsters. As Libération reports, as of today his campaign has unofficially taken off.
It was a stroke of luck that gave Bayrou this rather sudden dose of political credibility. When he was still mumbling economic common sense while tracking in single digits in the Ipsos polls (what a terrific little political site that is), a leading French political analyst, France 2’s Alain Duhamel, announced his support for Bayrou, causing the network to suspend him while also giving Bayrou a great deal of celeb-driven front-page coverage for his plans to stop budget deficits and to boost small businesses–and thus perhaps gratifying George W. Bush by introducing “entrepreneur” into the French lexicon.
Normally after that kind of publicity, a second-level French candidate like Bayrou would see his poll numbers tick up for a week or so, then retreat again as French voters resumed their studied lack of interest in their governing class. But Bayrou had done something else: He had pointed out that neither Royal nor Sarkozy could keep the campaign promises they were making. Royal’s attempt at bribery by calling for an expansion of France’s already luxurious unemployment benefits was one obvious example. Now Bayrou is the big story of the campaign.
But Bayrou’s rise in the polls has come mostly at Royal’s expense. As Sarkozy’s numbers continue to trend more slowly upward, worry spreads among those on the Left. Many voters who might support Royal if she seemed to have a chance–or even a good idea–are looking at a Bayrou victory as the only way to stop Sarko. According to Le Monde, Socialist poll-watchers for the first time are discussing the possibility of a reprise of the 2002 first-round elections that saw the Socialists finish third and thus out of the money. Royal’s fight-back has been less than rallying: Le Monde also reports she is going to rely on some increased nuance to push back Bayrou–that and continuing to sell her so-called “presidential pact” that would add civilians to the nation’s big bureaucratic stew. So far, the French have received that idea with their patented shrug.
Bayrou’s own strategy wasn’t particularly subtle at all. “He said the obvious thing,” Pierre Giacommetti, director-general of Ipsos France, told me. “He said [Sarkozy and Royal] could not keep their promises. It was common sense. People listened to that…. And now it has changed the campaign.” Both Royal and Sarkozy have gone on defense and both have started back-peddling on some of their more ridiculous campaign pledges.
In previous French campaigns, Giacommetti told me, these kinds of poll surges are fed by those who are politically engaged. “With Bayrou, it was that way in the beginning. At first, it attracted only the upper class, not the workers. But now for the first time we see he is also up in the middle class. This is new.”
The question, of course, is whether it’s also permanent. If Bayrou levels off or declines in the polls even a little, everything changes. Alain Hertoghe, a Paris-based journalist, explained to me that what Bayrou lacks is a “hard core” of UDF supporters, most of whom abandoned the party in 2002. “For now, [poll respondents] say they support him. But can he carry them with him? He does not have the core support that Royal has and that Sarkozy has. I think he is like the problem of the mistress. You think, ‘Oh, so perfect and so ideal,’ but then when you get to the moment you have to choose between the mistress and your wife and your family and everything you have, well you say good bye to the mistress.”
In a literal sense, that little scenario certainly favors Royal. In reality, and even in France, Sarko is still the one to beat.