Henri IV, France’s most popular king (1553-1610), was a model centrist in his day, which means that he often seemed a model of indecision. During the course of his life, he converted between Protestantism and Catholicism no fewer than five times. But, over the years, he learned how to deploy this apparent indecision for maximum political effect, tacking deftly between camps and finally uniting the country behind him.
It is fitting, then, that Henri IV is the great hero of today’s model French centrist–and surprisingly effective political gadfly–François Bayrou (who comes from the king’s native province of Béarn and has written a popular biography of him). Although Bayrou came in third in the initial round of France’s presidential election last Sunday, he seems paradoxically to have gained more stature and prominence in defeat than Nicolas Sarkozy or Ségolène Royal have done in victory. Bayrou has cannily exploited his own apparent indecision–his refusal to endorse either candidate in the second round election on May 6–to become not king himself, but the closest France has had to a kingmaker in a long time.
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