All The More Reason

Bayrou or Bust?
April 23, 2007, 2:51 pm
Filed under: French Politics, French Presidential Elections, Uncategorized

The first round result has delivered victories on a few fronts. First and foremost, it is a victory for Nicolas Sarkozy. His flirtation with the far-right has got him the outcome he desired- a slightly seedy one-night stand, enabling him to break the 30% mark (current estimates show him at 31.8%). His love rival, Jean-Marie Le Pen is left skulking in the corner with almost one million fewer votes. To pursue this rather unpleasant metaphor (it makes a change from military analogies, at least) Sarkozy, his lust now satisfied, must now distance himself somewhat – if not entirely – from his amour moche, whilst attempting to woo promiscuous Bayrou voters yearning for ‘autorité, autorité, autorité‘.

For all the disappointment they feel at their man’s 3rd place, they must know that they too have voted for a winner. He may not have achieved the result he needed to reach the second round (or to make the money I put on him look like anything other than a rash investment) but he is now in possession of a different and, arguably, equally valuable form of political capital. In 2002, Bayrou received some 6% or so of the vote – this has now trebled. The forthcoming legislative elections will probably show that the hunger for the UDF’s vaguely right of centre programme has not increased beyond 2002 levels, but the personal cult of Francois Bayrou, the third man who claims to be ‘above politics’, has certainly attracted a large following. Who will Bayrou now endorse? And, if he endorses, will his supporters follow?

His natural instinct would probably be to lean to the right, but given the polarizing nature of Sarkozy, and the overtures already made to him by some in the Socialist Party, he could equally swing behind a ‘reformist’ Royal ticket. Both candidates, though, will have to work hard to earn his support. One of the reasons Bayrou has done so well is because he has been able to cultivate the centre ground abandoned by the two main candidates. To win his endorsement, they will both have to show that they are willing to plough the same furrow.

However, given that Bayrou’s whole campaign was more or less founded upon the conviction that both parties are as bad as each other, it’s very hard to see how he could convincingly support either candidate. This leaves open the more intriguing possibility that he will refuse to make any pronouncement, maintaining what Le Monde today calls his ‘imperious stance’ above the party political fray. Unsullied by the subsequent misadventures of his anointed choice, he quietly prepares himself for another run in 2012…

If there is to be a race to the centre, Royal is yet to get off the starting blocks. Perhaps carried away by the rare opportunity to bask in the uncritical admiration of a socialist crowd, she spoke, as she has done throughout the campaign so far, squarely within, and not beyond, the confines of her own supporters. The battle to come would be between the familiar opposition of the powerful and the powerless; rich and poor. Seeing as her husband has previously labelled as riche anyone earning above 40,000 euros, this could turn out be a fight that she wishes she had never tried to pick.

In so far as it banished the memory of Jospin in 2002, yesterday’s vote was a victory of sorts for Royal too. Perhaps that speech was part of the catharsis that her party needed. But if it was a mere bone tossed in their direction, the militantsof the PS were not given too long to chew on it. Royal’s announcement, as she returned home in the early hours of this morning, that she ‘no longer belongs to the socialists’ will have to be her lodestar in the second round, for the hard numerical facts are as follows: she needs to find an extra 24% to become President, Sarkozy only needs another 20%.

Moreover, she can no longer draw on the left-wing reserves once enjoyed by Francois Mitterrand – the only precedent for president that French socialists have. In 1981, when Mitterrand scored more or less the same in the first round as Royal has done in 2007, 15% of the overall vote was garnered by the Communist Party’s candidate, George Marchais alone; en somme, almost one quarter of the electorate had voted to the left of Mitterrand, and could be expected to support him – as they did – in the run-off against Giscard d’Estaing. One of my favourite facts about French politics is that in 2002, some 33% of the electorate, on both the left and right, voted for totalitarian parties. This time round, it was a paltry 17% or so. Seeing as 10% of this vote went to Jean-Marie Le Pen, it can be said that the discerning totalitarian-about-town’s pick for the second round is probably Sarko. But Sego can lay claim to the rest- Arlette Laguiller of Workers Struggle, for one, has already given her endorsement. Even so, whereas Mitterrand had 25% of the electorate in the bag, Royal has somewhere near 10%. The second round simply cannot be won from the left.

Nor, however, can it be won from the hard right; somewhere Sarkozy has learnt to call home in recent months. He knows that his radical posturing, whilst achieving short-term results, may mean that in the second round an enormous number of voters will be voting against him, rather than for Royal. It would be all too easy for his opponent to run as the standard-bearer of an almost apolitical, republician ‘tout sauf Sarkozy’ mass movement; in fact, I would be shocked if the election did not now become ‘Sarko v. tout’.

Understandably therefore, there are signs that he is just as eager as Royal to look beyond his hardcore, towards the soft centre. In his celebratory address last night, Sarkozy used far less inflammatory language; no mention of the un-French practices of ‘polygamy’ or ‘goat sacrifices’ that had whipped erstwhile le-penistes into a frenzy during the first round. He took care to slip in the familiar rhetoric of ‘protection’ and ‘solidarity’ that is the opiate of the French electorate. But having set out his stall as the candidate of ‘rupture’, it’s hard to see how he can soften his image without dulling the blade of his reformist guillotine. Perhaps he will need to remind voters that a sharp, clean cut is the only way to avoid prolonging the nation’s suffering. For the moment, his tumbrel awaits.

Michael P


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