Should we be watching the French presidential campaign with admiration or alarm? Or perhaps a bit of both? It is undeniably a great "show" with all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster, including a surprising plot twist: the emergence of a "Third Man," Francois Bayrou.
Even if his victory remains unlikely, Bayrou must now be taken seriously. First and foremost, he has found in Segolene Royal and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy two remarkable spokespersons for his candidacy. The more Royal returns to the "classics" of the Socialist Party and the more Sarkozy openly courts the extreme right, the more Bayrou's popularity rises. Indeed, persistent doubts among the French about Royal's competence and Sarkozy's character are the primary reasons for his dramatic rise in public opinion polls, from 7 percent support at the start of the campaign to 22 percent now.
The second reason for Bayrou's spectacular rise has less to do with personalities and more with France's national mood. The very reason that led a majority of the French to say "no" to the referendum on the EU's draft Constitutional Treaty in May 2005 may lead them to vote for Bayrou, the most pro-European of all candidates.
Why this paradox? A vote that meant saying "no" to the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 now means saying "no" to the leaders of the French left and right. In the 2002 presidential election, frustration with the system fueled strong support for the extremes, with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far right, qualifying for the second-round runoff. This year by contrast -- and this constitutes real progress -- a large segment of the French population is expressing its frustration with the system by being tempted to vote for the "extreme center," ie, Bayrou.
Bayrou has been in politics for a long time, including as a presidential candidate in 2002. But, while his record as education minister is far from impressive, he has successfully reinvented his image in the last few months, becoming the "new man" of French politics. He looks more reassuring than Sarkozy and sounds more competent than Royal. This would not be enough for Bayrou in ordinary times, but today, on both sides of the political divide, opponents of the main candidates seem ready to join forces with him and betray their respective camps.
What makes Bayrou potentially so strong is the fact that widespread reservations about the two leading candidates are influencing the calculus of militants and politicians alike. On the conservative side, French President Jacques Chirac now officially supports Sarkozy, but he may also secretly encourage his most loyal supporters to vote for Bayrou, even if there is no love lost between the two men. On the left, the social democratic wing of the Socialist party, which backed Dominique Strauss-Kahn against Royal, may be tempted to align with Bayrou, too, owing to the prospect of a post-electoral alliance between the center left and the center right.
That said, surveys of the electorate demonstrate that a large proportion is still undecided, particularly among Bayrou's supporters. So it is too early to say whether Bayrou can reach the second round. But if he does, he is likely to prove irresistible.
A Bayrou victory, which is unlikely but not impossible, would constitute a triple revolution. It would lead first to the end of the Socialist Party created by Francois Mitterrand. Following former prime minister Lionel Jospin's humiliating defeat in 2002, the Socialists simply would not survive a second consecutive failure to reach the second round.
Moreover, a Bayrou victory could signify the end of the conservative party created by Chirac, as well as of Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic. But de Gaulle's legacy would most likely be snuffed out gently, with nostalgia for both Mitterrand and Chirac possibly proving very tempting for a people disaffected with the political system but desiring to be reassured. France wants the illusion of change, but is continuity what she truly desires?
Finally, while this election was expected to usher in a new generation of politicians, few were prepared to anticipate the peaceful political tsunami that a Bayrou victory would bring. Yet that would be the outcome if the attraction towards the center proves to be as irresistible for significant segments of the Socialists and conservative parties as it now seems.
France is a marvelously paradoxical country, so the search for novelty, if not modernity, could lead to the reinvention of the Fourth Republic, a parliamentary regime characterized by its weaknesses and instability. That will depend in part on whether the perception of Sarkozy as a risky candidate will prove greater than the very real institutional risk represented by Bayrou.
There is maybe less of a French presence in the world today than there was 12 years ago when Chirac came to power, especially since the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005. But the world's interest in the French presidential campaign is greater than ever, and can be compared only with the attention generated by Mitterrand's election in 1981.
Much may change in the few weeks left before the first round of the presidential vote. But the campaign has now become a question of numbers: Will the Third Man bury the Fifth Republic?
Dominique Moisi, a founder and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, is a professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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