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27 April 2007

When the third man comes first

He came third in the first round but is Bayrou the kingmaker of the French election?

By Frederic Niel

Clearly, this presidential election is not like the others. Normally the first round cuts out all the candidates bar two, who face each other in the finals two weeks later.

This time the third candidate, instead of retreating quietly to his cage to lick his wounds in silence, has managed the feat of inviting himself along to the second-round campaign.

Indeed, the two finalists – the right’s Nicolas Sarkozy, with 31% of the votes, and the socialist Segolene Royal with 25% – need the support of the centrist vote to gain a majority on the 6th May. Never before Bayrou had a centrist gained so many votes; on 22nd April he fetched 18.5%.

But yet, is he a real “kingmaker”? If one part of the Bayrou-voters came from the right, and another from the left, a third faction voted for him in order to reject the left- and right-wing parties who have been succeeding each other in government for years.

Those voters were seriously convinced by his promise to find solutions in the centre ground. Bayrou can’t disappoint them in overtly calling for them to vote for Royal and Sarkozy. Less than all the other candidates, he doesn’t “own” his votes. That’s why, on Wednesday, he refused to support either of the two remaining candidates. He simply changed the name of his party, the UDF, to the Democratic Party. With this he’s hoping to break with the time when the UDF was just a buffer for the neo-Gaullist party (called the RPR, then then UMP). At best, it seems, he could admit next week that he will personally be voting for Segolene Royal, without calling for others to vote for her.

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This possibility is still important enough though for Royal to have organised a debate with Bayrou before the planned debate between the two finalists, set for Wednesday 2nd May. She wants to prove that the socialists and the centrists share many ideas.

If this alliance made victory possible for Royal, and if it carried on into the legislative elections in June, it could completely alter the French political scenery. The Socialist Party’s heart would then drift towards the right – as is wished by, for instance, the former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn – in on order to become a Social Democrat party resembling those found in other European countries, more well-disposed towards private enterprise. It could eventually join with Francois Bayrou’s party, if it managed to anchor it in the centre ground.

Exciting… but not very probable. Sarkozy is named as the winner on the 6th May by all the polls so far.