A few weeks ago I wrote about the two leading candidates in the upcoming French presidential election, Ségolène Royal of the Parti Socialiste and Nicolas Sarkozy of the rightist Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (created about 10 years ago by Jacques Chirac, who is retiring). Here's a link to that topic.
Since then the character of the race has changed slightly. A third candidate, the centrist François Bayrou, has soared in the polls and now would get 23% of the vote in the first round of the election, which is the same score as Royal. Sarkozy leads with 28% in the latest poll.
François Bayrou, 55, is head of the party called UDF — Union pour la Démocratie Française. The UDF party was created in 1978 by supporters of then-president Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing to help him in his 1981 campaign against socialist François Mitterrand. Giscard lost that re-election bid.
The UDF, a centrist Christian-Democrat group, has for years been allied to one extent or another with the rightist, Chirac-led political movement in France. Bayrou ran for president in the last election (2002) but got only seven percent of the vote in the first round. Some members of the UDF that year called on the party to just go ahead and support Chirac in the first round.
The French presidential election involves two rounds of voting — except in the highly unlikely event that one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in the first round. The second-round runoff election takes place two weeks after the first-round vote. For that one, the two leading candidates try to gather support from all the first-round losers in order to end up with a majority in the final vote.
The winning candidate is therefore guaranteed to have a majority of more than 50% of the people who vote, whereas in the U.S. the winning candidate doesn't need a majority of the popular vote to be elected president. Bill Clinton never had a majority, and neither did G.W. Bush in 2000.
In 2002,the conventional wisdom predicted that the candidates of the two main French parties, Chirac's and the socialists', would end up contesting the second round. But there was a first-round surprise: the incumbent Chirac was the highest vote-getter (no surprise there) with something like 18% (a very low score for an incumbent), but the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, who had been Chirac's prime minister for five years in a force power-sharing arrangement the French call cohabitation, came in only third.
So the socialists were locked out. A lot of extreme-left candidates got enough votes to drain away the socialist's support. Voters weren't happy with Jospin, you have to assume. The candidate who edged out Jospin to come in second in 2002 was the extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. That was a great shock for the French people and the political establishment, which had always written Le Pen off as representing the lunatic fringe on the right.
Chirac got more than 80 percent of the vote in the second round and was easily re-elected.
It looks like the same kind of thing could happen to the Parti Socialiste candidate this year, but with the centrist Bayrou, not the extreme-right Le Pen, as the spoiler. In fact, Le Pen is having trouble getting his candidacy off the ground this year.
To become a candidate for president, you are required to get the signatures of 500 local elected officials on a petition that you present to the election authorities in Paris. The pool of officials who can sign a petition includes the mayors of the 36,000 towns and villages (called communes) in France, as well as 12,000 other elected officials (members of parliament and others). Each official can sign only one candidate's petition. In fact, there are as many as 40 accredited candidates qualified for the first round of voting. But Le Pen has thus far been unable to get 500 elected officials to sponsor him. Suspense ! as they say in French. Will he find 500 qualified people willing to endorse his candidacy?
The deadline for getting the petition turned in is this coming Friday, March 16. The first-round voting is scheduled for April 22, and the second round for May 6. The new president takes office pretty much immediately.
This is obviously a much more streamlined, compact process than the American presidential election, which now seems to be in full swing nearly 2 years before the voting will take place.
In France, there are candidates on the extreme left and the on the extreme right. There are the candidates of the two mainstream parties, represented by Ségolène Royal on the left and Nicolas Sarkozy on the right. And this year there is François Bayrou, who some are calling an "extreme centrist."
Bayrou (pronounced bye-ROO) was first elected to France's National Assembly (the parliament) in 1986, when he was 35 years old. He was named minister of education 1n 1993 and remained in that job until the socialists took power (under Chirac) in 1997 and named ministers from their party. In 1999 he was elected to the European parliament, which meets in Strasbourg. In 2002 he ran for president of France and got about seven percent of the vote in the first round, placing him fourth behind Chirac, Le Pen, and Jospin (who got between 15 and 20 percent each).
Bayrou is a family man (married since 1971, he and his wife have six children and 12 grandchildren) from the southwest of France who has an advanced degree in classical literature. He is the author of a biography of the French king called Henri IV (who reigned from 1589 until he was assassinated by a madman in 1610). The book sold more than 300,000 copies, making it a best-seller in the French-speaking world.
Henri IV was from the same region as François Bayrou. He was the king who supposedly said Paris vaut bien une messe ("Paris is well worth a mass") as he renounced his protestant faith and converted to catholicism in order to be come King of France.
According to legend, he also said: Je veux qu'il n'y ait si pauvre paysan en mon royaume qu'il n'ait tous les dimanches sa poule au pot. That is, "I want there to be no person in my realm so poor as to not have a chicken in the pot every Sunday." Henri IV is portrayed as a beloved figure, and you have to think he is some kind of role model for François Bayrou.
People are a little nervous about Nicolas Sarkozy because he is a firebrand on the question of immigration and diversity issues. People are also a little nervous the socialists, who are seen as capable of bankrupting the country with new programs and being lax on crime. The centrist Bayrou just may end up representing a third way in the eyes of the voters. On verra.