Adam Ash

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Holy shit! some dude is gaining on the two leaders in the French presidential election, and the whole game is up for grabs

French Socialists fear rise of Bayrou -- by John Thornhill in Paris / Financial Times

France’s Socialist party has been struggling to devise an effective strategy to halt the rise of François Bayrou in the opinion polls, which is spreading a whiff of panic in the party’s headquarters.

Mr Bayrou, leader of the centrist UDF party, has been artfully wooing voters by posing as a consensus-building pragmatist, spanning the tribal divides between left and right. The latest opinion polls show Mr Bayrou poised to overtake Ségolène Royal, the Socialist party candidate, in the race for the presidency, possibly winning through to the second round of voting to confront Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the Gaullist right.

On Wednesday Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former finance minister and unofficial leader of the Socialist party’s social democratic wing, publicly rebuffed Mr Bayrou’s invitation to join a broad coalition, saying the UDF leader was ideologically rightwing and therefore an enemy of the Socialists. “François Bayrou only represents the illusion of change,” said Mr Strauss-Kahn, an unsuccessful challenger for his party’s nomination.

However, the extent of Socialists’ disquiet was highlighted at a strategy meeting on Tuesday night, details of which were widely leaked to the press.

According to the AFP news agency, Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister, told the meeting: “One could say that the Bayrou question does not arise, but the numbers in the polls and the echoes in the country show that it is emerging,” he said. “I have sensed a hesitation and I am not alone.”

Although Ms Royal won her party’s nomination on an extraordinary upsurge of popular support, she has since struggled to convince voters that she would make a credible head of state. Her 100-point presidential pact, calling for substantial spending increases, has been widely criticised as unfundable. Her promises to increase the minimum wage and pensions and invest in social housing, education, and environmental technologies were not matched by clearly identified budget cuts.

Ms Royal’s campaign has also suffered from scarcely concealed tensions between her tight-knit team of personal advisers based in swanky campaign headquarters on Boulevard Saint Germain and the party’s apparat , based nearby on Rue de Solférino. Ms Royal’s recent embrace of some of the party’s old-school luminaries, such as Lionel Jospin, the former prime minister, does not appear to have significantly increased her electoral appeal.

Gérard Grunberg, a historian of the Socialist party, said that Ms Royal had helped conceal – but not heal – the divisions that erupted in the party during the 2005 referendum campaign. Leftwing hardliners had opposed Europe’s constitutional treaty, while social democrats had supported it. “She is a product of a crisis of French socialism,” he said.

Mr Grunberg said Ms Royal had injected some modernity into the backward-looking party by stressing the importance of public finances and promising to reconcile the left with enterprise. But he said she was still distrusted by the party’s left wing, which was intent on defying rather than tempering globalisation. “Their social model is the social equilibrium of the 1970s,” he said.

The Socialist party, which boasts a long history of militancy and 280,000 members, forms the second-biggest party in parliament and is a powerful electoral machine. But its candidates have tended to perform poorly in presidential elections, winning only two of the seven races in the 49-year history of the Fifth Republic. The only Socialist party leader to occupy the Elysée palace was François Mitterrand, who was elected in 1981 and re-elected seven years later.

According to Max Gallo, a former Mitterrand adviser and popular historian, France has always veered towards the right in presidential polls.

“In the depths of their historic unconscious, the French believe that a president of the right is more legitimate than a president of the left,” he has written.

However, pollsters suggest that Ms Royal could still win the election if she can fight off the challenge from Mr Bayrou and clinch second place. In a second-round run-off, she might be able to win simply by virtue of not being Mr Sarkozy.


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