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Decisive Vote

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.

Bayrou, a former schoolteacher and farmer, has been able to do this for two reasons. First, his 18 percent first-round showing (6.8 million votes) represents the best score by any centrist candidate in decades, giving him a credibility he previously lacked (in the 2002 race, he received an embarrassing 6.8 percent). Secondly, Royal, who scored just 26 percent to Sarkozy's 31 percent in the first round, desperately needs Bayrou's supporters. While she can count on most of the 10 percent of voters who favored the extreme left last Sunday--and many of the 16 percent who went to the polls but abstained--this still leaves her well short of a majority. Nearly all the polls show Sarkozy has a firm, if not commanding lead. Unless Royal can siphon off more Bayrou voters, she will almost certainly lose.

In theory, the task is almost impossible. Bayrou's UDF party (Union for French Democracy) is center-right, not centrist, and it has traditionally formed electoral coalitions with Gaullists, not Socialists. Bayrou himself served in two Gaullist cabinets. But Bayrou wants to destroy Sarkozy, whom he personally loathes, and he hopes to establish himself as leader of a permanent third force in French politics. Nicely for him, playing Hamlet (or Henri IV) allows him to pursue both aims at once.

At a news conference Wednesday, Bayrou sounded as if he were still in the running. He chided Royal for her unbudging statism and slashed wildly at Sarkozy, calling him the candidate of "threats and intimidation." This week, he also charged that, in 2004, Sarkozy--then serving in President Jacques Chirac's cabinet--tried to enlist him in a conspiracy against Chirac. Bayrou declared sententiously that this alleged treachery revolted him and that he has not spoken to Sarkozy since. Although Bayrou has refused to issue an endorsement for the second round, he will take part in a formal televised debate this weekend with Royal, and he has left open the possibility that after the formal Sarkozy-Royal television debate next Wednesday, he might offer further "indications" on how to vote. Royal has responded to Bayrou with a full-court pander that has set off angry murmurs among her own left wing. Sarkozy, meanwhile, has mixed conciliatory statements with threats that he might try to take over Bayrou's party.

All these maneuvers--and, indeed, Bayrou's success--are only possible because of the instability of France's party system, which I discussed here last week. Bayrou first broke with the Gaullists several years ago when they tried to absorb his UDF into the new, broader right-wing UMP party (its ultra-vapid name, "Union for a Popular Movement," eloquently expresses its almost complete lack of unifying principles; it replaced the equally vapid Union for the Presidential Majority, which, as recently as 2002, replaced the even more vapid Rally for the Republic). Just this week, Bayrou announced his intention to supplant the UDF with a new, centrist "Democratic Party," while Sarkozy made clear that he wants to replace the UMP with yet another new Gaullist party. Sarkozy proposed that it might have distinct left and right-wing "poles," the better to reach out to both the UDF and Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front.

Unfortunately, this instability makes it all the less likely that the winning candidate on May 6 will actually accomplish anything in office. For democratic leaders to carry out controversial reforms against concerted opposition--such as the unions and student organizations who pour into the French streets at the merest hint of a threat to the country's vaunted social "protections"--they need, at the very least, unquestioned support from their own political camp. A President Sarkozy who has to engage in constant contortions just to keep a jerry-rigged bipolar political party in line behind him will likely have a hard time indeed prevailing over serious resistance. Small wonder that Henri IV--who dealt with opposition in the classic, unforgiving manner of absolute monarchs--remains so popular among French politicians.

By David A. Bell