All The More Reason

Bayrou Keeps his Powder Dry
April 24, 2007, 4:15 pm
Filed under: French Politics, French Presidential Elections

As exclusively revealed/speculated upon/mentioned in passing yesterday, Francois Bayrou will reportedly announce tomorrow that he has chosen not to personally endorse either of the two candidates for the French presidency. For reasons of his own credibility, this was perhaps inevitable. He has attacked both parties’ positions as anachronistic and could hardly give whole-hearted support to one or the other, especially if he is perceived to have done a seedy backroom deal in order to secretly carve out a place for the UDF in any subsequent government. Bayrou will want his party, or whichever group that sprouts up after the choc of May 6th, to be an independent force within the National Assembly capable of achieving what he refers to as ‘a shift in the political landscape’. This way he is untainted by accusations of being anybody’s place-man. Nor, more pertinently, will he be required to back a winner in what could turn out to be a tighter race than anyone had imagined.

In the absence of any official encyclical from Bayrou, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal will have to go above his head and tailor their message to the 7 million French people who voted for the man himself. Politically, this is much easier for Sarkozy; the UMP is a pragmatic coalition of centre-right groups naturally attracted to the economically liberal scent that the UDF gives off.  However, the UDF is also a socially liberal party; one which has persistently attacked Sarkozy’s social programme for being too ‘brutal’. The harsh and intemperate language used by Sarkozy throughout the campaign will not be forgotten, no matter how hard he now tries to paint himself in pastel shades.

Pitched against someone who frightens the liberal horses so, one would assume that Segolene Royal’s appeal to UDF voters would be clair et net. Indeed, all her pronouncements since her rather lacklustre speech on Sunday have been designed to push the buttons of Bayrou and his supporters. Like him, she talks about ‘political renewal’ – although, this translation does not really do justice to the original phrase, ‘renovation politique‘, which suggests a rather more fundamental look at the architecture of the French system. Quite how Royal intends to square this rhetoric with what is a fairly conventional socialist programme remains to be seen.

However, any overtures made on her part to centrist voters immediately result in a chorus of harrumphs from her Socialist Party comrades. They balk at the thought of having to dilute their rhetoric, let alone their policies, for the sake of gaining the support of what they dismissively refer to as the troisieme force. For them, the PS is a rassemblement a gauche or it is nothing. The most vicious fight we see over the coming fortnight may therefore be within Royal’s own party – between leftist elephants like Dominique Strauss-Kahn and more pragmatic social-democrats like Bernard Kouchner.

And, funnily enough, the terms of the debate may centre around an ideology that will soon become something of an anachronism in its country of origin- le blairisme. This is a phrase that the leftist horses are equally fearful of, not just because of its post-Iraq connotations, but because it is seen as code for unthinkable doctrinal compromises- the sale of the party’s socialist soul and a capitulation to neo-liberalisme. Royal is not instantly dismissive of blairisme. In an interview with France Inter this morning she was quick to praise Blair ‘for investing in public services and cutting youth unemployment’. But this is rather disingenous. These achievements, based as they were upon a foundation of economic stability and growth, were only made possible by the liberal reforms of the 1980s, in particular, the unblocking of Britain’s sclerotic labour market (which, in the short term, lest we forget, iself led to a great deal of unemployment). Without a formula for resolving France’s structural problems, Royal’s talk of blairisme will continue to be all sizzle and no beef.

Michael P


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