On Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the last in a series of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. His longer and more in-depth look at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY, and is now available on our website.
François Bayrou—a devout Catholic, a horsebreeder, and the holder of advanced degrees in history—is a centrist. Politically, he belongs to a Christian-Democratic sub-current that was very powerful in the 1950’s before being crushed by the polarized Right-Left system forced upon the country by Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. While many Christian Democrats joined the Gaullist Right, and others the socialists, a small group managed to survive under several successive names and acronyms. The UDF (Union for French Democracy), originally a conservative coalition supporting Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is now Bayrou’s base. Having served as minister of education from 1993 to 1997, he represented the UDF in the 2002 presidential election and surprisingly gathered almost 7 percent of the vote: not bad for the “non-candidate” of a “non-party.”
Bayrou was convinced he stood a real chance for the presidency—provided he could distance the UDF and himself entirely from the traditional Right. This he proceeded to do, at some cost in supporters—but he didn’t care. Once a declared presidential candidate, he stubbornly railed against the disproportionate (in his opinion) media coverage of Sarkozy and Royal, finally winning his point and (according to some reports) garnering more coverage on radio and TV than any other candidate.
But the decisive factor for Bayrou was that Royal’s candidacy began to fall apart. As some socialists came to see the UDF as a lesser-of-two-evils alternative to Sarkozy, parts of the electorate switched to Bayrou’s side. By the beginning of March, he was at over 20 percent in the polls, and it began to seem possible that he might outstrip Royal on the first ballot, and then, as the only challenger to Sarkozy, begin to attract the centrist, the left-wing, and even the far-Right vote to beat the UMP candidate.
What would Bayrou’s politics be as president? He has contended that only a national-unity government—“like de Gaulle’s in 1944, which included the democratic Right as well as socialists and Communists”—will be able to deal with the French domestic crisis. In his belief, this national government should be balanced by stronger regional and local powers, their configurations based on history and culture as well geography. A supporter of a federal Europe, Bayrou nevertheless opposes the accession of Turkey to the EU. He has also expressed adamant support for Chirac’s anti-Iraq-war line, as do most French citizens. Regarding Israel, he has stated that “in the wake of the Shoah, all of mankind is a partner in the Jewish people’s decision to recover a land,” while adding that “We must . . . find some balance between the state established by yesterday’s humiliated Jews and the one that today’s humiliated Palestinians must establish.”
In February, alarmed by the prospect of Bayrou’s rise, Royal and Sarkozy resolved to bring in a fourth man whom they had hitherto kept at bay: Jean-Marie Le Pen.
It had seemed up to this point that Le Pen might not muster enough endorsements to qualify for the first ballot, but Bayrou’s surge prompted both camps to hint publicly that to deny Le Pen a chance to run would be bad for democracy. The needed signatures were finally gathered, and the National Front rose in the polls from 12 percent of the putative votes to 14 percent by the end of March. Some suspected that Le Pen’s real level of support was even higher, between 16 and 20 percent. (At that point, Bayrou’s numbers had stalled at about 20 percent, and both Sarkozy and Royal stood at 26 percent.)
There was, however, more to Le Pen’s resurrection than mere political jockeying. The old man had embarked on a drastic makeover: from a reactionary nativist whose main concern was to stop immigration and clear the reputation of the wartime Vichy regime to a Hugo Chavez-style populist promoting a Europe-third-world alliance against America. As long ago as 1999, Samuel Maréchal, one of Le Pen’s sons-in-law, had stated that one had to admit that France was becoming “a multiethnic and multireligious society,” and that “Islam was now France’s second religion.” This was greeted with an outcry of protest among the Front’s rank and file.
Seven years later, Jean-Claude Martinez, a National Front member of the European Parliament and Le Pen’s “strategic adviser,” reiterated Maréchal’s challenge, arguing that the National Front must adjust to globalization, forget about some of its founding myths, and welcome immigrant blacks and Arabs into the national fold. He even expressed enthusiasm for hip-hop, a form dominated in France by Arab and black performers, as long as the lyrics were sung in French. This time, there was no outcry. In the wake of the extended European crisis over the Danish “Muhammad” cartoons, the National Front sided with the Muslims, demanding that “religious sensibilities must be respected.”
Le Pen’s shift has led to breakaways from the National Front but also to new arrivals in the form of young men and women nurtured in France’s anti-American and anti-Zionist pop culture, Muslims who relished Le Pen’s anti-Semitic innuendos and his support for Saddam Hussein, and black-power militants. At the outset of the 2007 presidential campaign, the National Front went a step further, putting up large billboards featuring a sexy young girl of North African descent and a sharp anti-elitist caption: “They’re all wrong!” Chavez could not have put it better.
And so to Sunday’s balloting, from which two front-runners will emerge to battle it out in the second round of voting on May 6.