François Bayrou: third time lucky?

In the end, this was a good week to meet François Bayrou for the first time. He's on the front page of L'Express, as well as Le Figaro's weekly magazine. Having doubled his poll figures in the month since he threw his hat into the ring, perhaps he'll be hoping for another bound following his first rally in Dunkirk on Thursday.

To a certain extent, we've been here before. In 2007, the-then candidate of the now-extinct UDF party rose from zero to hero with comparable rapidity. But this time, it's pretty certain Bayrou himself hopes things will be different. « I didn't really believe in 2007. I was doing it for my political family », he's said this week. A question of honour. This time, though, he told us in Strasbourg, « I wouldn't be doing it I wasn't convinced I can win ».


He's probably right to point out that this time, things are different. France isn't the same as in 2007; and Bayrou points out,  « I've already won back half of my electorate from 2007. Lots of people say 'I voted UMP last time, and now I'm for you' ».


And Bayrou is intent on doing things differently. On his terms, that means.  In 2007, as the media-frenzy reached a crescendo as the electoral deadlines loomed, his displeasure at the media-circus was evident: Bayrou berating camera-men and journalists as they trample farmer's produce was part of the myth back then.


This time, so far, Bayrou's strategy is deliberately novel; his team says he doesn't want gangs of TV crews following his every step. They get in the way, between the candidate and his audience, the voting public. So, it's low-key, for now. (After all, he is still fourth in the polls). But whether the under-the-radar approach is a deliberate stance or a symptom of his still—low poll standing is debatable.


Just how different is Bayrou? His message isn't exactly a traditional vote-winner. France's decades of overspending have to be turned around ; that means spending cuts, hiking taxes and a balanced budget by 2016. Ouch. But his real trump card is his prescience. The loss of France's triple-A on January 13th simply confirmed what he's been saying for 5 years, and more; the nation is spending beyond its means. And, although they might not like it, Bayrou reckons the French are ready to listen to his diagnosis, and his medicine: « I'm in tune with the situation. What I said was going to happen has happened ».


Given the current voter disenchantment with the Socialists and the UMP, many have surmised that Bayrou's success mirrors that of Marine Le Pen, from the far-right FN party.  Both address voters fed up with France's stagnant politics and economy; both loudly berate the big parties, « UMPS » for Marine Le Pen, and « PPP » (Partis Provisoirement au Pouvoir, or the Parties Provisionally in Power). But for Bayrou, that's where the similarities end: « I don't set the French against each other. I am a republican version of a wholescale change of the system. The opposite of Marine Le Pen ».


Travelling to Strasbourg on the TGV, Bayrou is friendly. Sharing a joke with the national-press journalists who follow most of his déplacements, and ensuring that the ticket-inspector stamps his ticket (and that we know he carries his own ticket). He has the firm handshake of the man who does that for a living, like Jacques Chirac; when he talks to people, he looks them straight in the eyes. Like many politicians, that makes it seem like he's listening; unlike most, he does actually seem to listen.


Bayrou rejects claims that his recent success – in part credited to his « made in France » slogan, targetting working classes – is thanks to his populist tone. Without apparent irony, he says, it's nothing to do with populism, simply « a president has to have a link to the public. And I love the people ». In many ways, that is part of the difference; Bayrou may have been a willing participant in government in the 1990s, but he prefers to emphasise his personal history, as the son of a peasant. His roots in the Pyrenees are more picturesque than the upbringing of Hollande, Sarkozy, Le Pen et al. That's part of his appeal, he believes, as « my values come from  deep inside. People need values, something that can't be bought. »


« I think I understand the French better than the others. I love them as they are ». Self-belief, then, is another of Bayrou's traits. To plough a lonely political furrow for over a decade, mould a political party in one's image: that demands a certain assurance. So too, as the journalist Alain Duhamel pointed out in his recent book of political portraits, « to overcome a stutter, and become so eloquent... »


Bayrou likes to appear humble, too. When asking for an explanation about the detailed insurance issues he's come to find out about in Strasbourg, he repeats, « Bayroutien que je suis, expliquez-moi encore ... », « For this Bayrou, explain that again... ». And compared to the other candidates in the running, he seems human: he takes the tram to his rendez-vous, and protects his privacy and family fiercely.


There's a touch of the arrogance, too, the same that pushed him to create his own party. Quoting François Mittérand in 1988, he says he has no preference for a second round opponent. « I'll accept whoever the French choose for me ». That, mixed with his fierce independence, means he's not simply optimistic about May 2012, he's single-minded: « the only presidential majority I'll belong to is one that's formed around me ».


by Luke Brown


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