France: As the Left Falls Apart, Will the Center Hold?

by Ruth Crossman

The first round in the French presidential election is less than a week away, and the top contenders are still running hard. The neo-Gaullist Interior Minister Sarkozy enjoys a commanding lead in the polls, but the fate of Socialist Ségolène Royal is less certain; she has spent the last several months trailing behind third-party candidate François Bayrou in the polls. Bayrou’s performance was been the surprise of the campaign season. The self styled outsider and Third Way maven has superseded the radical populist Jean-Marie Le Pen as the official ‘Third Man’ of French politics. But the question is whether voters truly prefer Bayrou’s policies, or if they have simply bought into his packaging.


Bayrou comes from the center-right UDF (Union for the Defense of France,) the faction associated with the liberal policies of former President Valery Giscard D’Estaing, in opposition to the RPR (Rally for the Republic,) the party of neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac. The relationship between the two parties is been complex. In general, they compete during presidential elections and ally during legislative elections. The RPR was dissolved in 2002 (after the indictment of party leaders on corruption charges) and replaced by the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), which was established as an electoral vehicle for Chirac, before succumbing to a friendly takeover at the hands of his former protégé, Nicolas Sarkozy. Bayrou, who garnered only 6% of the vote in 2002, has used the ascension of Sarkozy to reinvent himself. Historically, one of the defining splits between the UDF and the Gaullists was the economic role of the state. But Sarkozy has completely effaced this cleavage by running on a platform of aggressive neo-liberalism. This has allowed Bayrou to run to his left, positioning himself as a ‘Third Way’ candidate in the mold of Clinton and Blair. By promoting economic reform coupled with continuing social protection, Bayrou attracts those (and there are many) who feel that Sarkozy is too extreme.


Given the historical rivalry between the UDF and the RPR, Sarkozy’s loss of support to Bayrou is understandable. What is more remarkable, and more telling, is the level of defection from the left. On February 22 the left-leaning newspaper Libération carried an endorsement of Bayrou penned by 30 high ranking Socialist functionaries. Even schoolteachers, who have historically been a bed rock of support for the Socialists, are now split, with 45% supporting Bayrou. Royal now faces the possibility of being the second Socialist candidate in a row to be eliminated in the first round.


The general consensus in the French media is that Royal ran her campaign badly. It is true that she has made several gaffes (such as calling for Québécois independence during a visit to Canada,) and has suffered from her association with Socialist “elephants” such as Jack Lang and Lionel Jospin. But many of her problems are actually structural. Politics in France have undergone a series of realignments, and the ‘Old Left’ has become more and more irrelevant. The Socialist Party itself is becoming increasingly fractured over questions of economic policy, and the presidential campaign only highlighted the lack of party unity. In February, Party Secretary Eric Bésson resigned his post after a public dispute with Royal over the cost of her social proposals. Royal refuses to discuss specific figures, a strategy which has only deepened the public’s suspicion that she is either economically irresponsible or politically disingenuous. At this point in time, hard core leftists are likely to opt for smaller and more extreme parties in the first round (as they did in 2002), while moderates are increasingly likely to support Bayrou. If it continues to bleed votes from the left and the right, the Socialist Party will be doomed.

It is still unclear what Bayrou’s popularity signifies. Are the French finally willing to quit treating ‘liberalism’ like a dirty word? Does Bayrou’s promise of a balanced budget carry more weight than Sarkozy’s nationalism and Royal’s appeal to equality? If Bayrou defeats Sarkozy in the second round, a scenario which is becoming increasingly likely, will the government finally be able to carry out economic reforms without triggering protests? Or is Bayrou merely a highly polished and processed protest candidate?