Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bayrou: how to lose and win in France

For the regular readers of this blog I must apologize. There are so many things to write about Venezuela these days, but... Forgive me for indulging in yet another post where I can discuss about a country where politicians do not show obvious pathological signs, where a real electoral campaign happens, with real propositions that actually could be implemented and give measurable results, a campaign that offers all sorts of surprises, where appealing, educated, smart candidates are able to campaign against each other without gross barrack insults such as a certain candidate does in a country that shall remain nameless. Yes, you guessed it, I am still following the French election, may TV5 be blessed.

The nature of a second round election

A second round election is in the French system a flash campaign that must manage to combine the work done in the preceding 6 months, with the ability to modulate enough one's message in two weeks to convince enough of the folks that did not vote for you to come over and get you over that 50%. In other countries the second round can be extended to several weeks and in a way it becomes a brand new campaign. But in France politicians do not have that privilege to reinvent themselves. They must demonstrate in two weeks that they can go from being a mere politician to become a statesman. French people, once the election is over, tend to think of their president as the embodiment of the nation, for better or for worse; and impeachment is not a word as easily flung as in the US.

This in a way surprises foreign observers who see all sorts of nasty words hurled at the diverse candidates but once they are elected there is almost a monarchical respect about the president and his private life. For example the extra marital affairs of Chirac or Mitterrand were never daily fodder of tabloids. Mitterrand was even able to hide for years the existence of an out of wedlock daughter. This became finally an issue when he started taking her on his travels. The second round campaign, its brevity and single debate structure, must be understood as the opportunity for both candidates to rise from the common of mortals and show that they can be France. It is a weird concept but that is the way it is.

For the observer that has a lot of trouble understanding this, in particular the US observer, let me make a parenthesis about the US electoral system. Most folks are amazed at the length of the American Presidential process. After all, general election is in November 2008 and you would think that Hillary and Barak are already preparing for the Democratic convention in a few days. What people do not realize is that in fact the American voter likes these long drawn primary battles because it sorts out candidates on their ability to direct a very complex federal state. The US being the Empire it is, folks like to see up from close their future emperor, to let him (or her?) know that they are the ones that will put her/him in office because a given candidate could make the difference between San Diego and San Antonio. How best to measure the management ability of a presidential candidate but to watch them running the primary road show, its scores of peoples, travels, issues, money raising, etc...? That is what matters to the US voters: will s/he manage my tax money adequately? In France it is: will s/he make me feel good to be French? The Prime Minister is the one who gets the blame for tax money mismanagement, by the way.

To each countries its peculiarities.

Bayrou, the loser who won

In this context we can see a new Bayrou emerge today. What? Bayrou? Isn't he the guy who came in third last Sunday?

He did but he holds the key for the second round and today he announced that he would not give an indication to his followers on how to vote. That is, 18.5% of French electors will do as they think fit, without any indication from their leader. And believe it or not this was a master strike by Bayrou. With this announcement he has taken control of the campaign while Sarkozy and Royal will do the impossible to have his folks come over their respective dark side of the force.

But that is not all: Bayrou also announced that he will be forming a new centrist party, that his current UDF had served its purpose and could not keep carrying with it the rightist connotation it received when it was Giscard D'Estaing vehicle. With this Bayrou implied that he is already starting his campaign for the legislative elections of June, making these elections a real third electoral round where he could well come out the New Prime Minister of whomever wins two Sundays from now.

Now, I am impressed. Not by the announcement: this was the way to go for him. No, I am impressed because he actually pushed the envelope to the max, he had the guts to confront the Socialist challenger and the official UMP as well. For the next month and a half Bayrou is on the driver seat of French Politics, unless he makes a mistake. But I saw his press conference today, and his TV apparitions and it was a different Bayrou: poised, in control, directed. A man with a plan. We are not done with him.

Segolene Royal reacts

The socialist front woman reacted quite fast and quite well and quite surprising. As Bayrou she showed that she had guts by confronting her fossiliferous left wing. She immediately challenged Bayrou to a public exchange of ideas BEFORE she meets Sarkozy for the official debate. She also said that she would consider UDF ministers in her next government.

In other words she decided that the Socialist party should open itself to the Center, where the votes are, where the victory will come from. And may the radical left or the fossil socialists deal with the new French political reality! Ms. Royal has decided to play down her cards of modernization and of turning the socialists into a truly social democratic party, not bound to outdated, retrograde and unworkable dogmas such as the 35 hours work week or the anathema on any politician that does not put social programs ahead of any other governmental considerations.

Ms. Royal for all of her failings knows how to read an electoral result. After all she learned from the best, François Mitterrand. She knows that the right has the votes. She also probably already knew what is the surprise these days: that maybe as much as 50% of Bayrou voters are in fact socialist deserters! These people who have abandoned the socialist party because they realize that a 35 hours week, and an incredible burden of social regulation is slowly asphyxiating France and that the socialist policies will eventually doom the welfare state. Yet they are not ready to go all the way to the free wheeling ways that Sarkozy is proposing with some economical aspects. She sensed that these people might not have deserted her, but rather have not followed her because they do not think she can control her left wing. What better way to demonstrate your will to control your left wing by going to your right in search of new allies, of a new presidential majority?

It is too early to know if her gambit will pay off. If she pisses of the radical left she might not be getting enough Bayrou votes anyway to compensate. But does the Radical Left has a choice? As I pointed out last post, Voynet of the greens was already claiming loud that only a victory was possible if Royal stuck on the leftist ideas. Because Voynet knows full well that a Royal-Bayrou alliance would make her green movement irrelevant (and deservedly so, by the way, for all the mistakes they have done along the way). But what if Royal's gambit pays off? All will change in France. For better or for worse, who knows!? But the way politics are done will change and the repercussions will provoke a likely division of the socialists and of the UMP and who knows what will emerge.

Sarkozy does not react

If there was another surprise today it was that Sarkozy dismissed Bayrou words. True, he does not need Bayrou as much as Royal needs him. With the Radical Right and half of Bayrou votes he might make it. But if Bayrou and Royal debate works out for them, Sarkozy might not even be sure of 25% of Bayrou votes. The surprise today was finer exit polls that actually show that more voters of Bayrou come from the left than form the right, and thus the center is build mostly on tired disillusioned leftist. That is not enough to transform them overnight in conservative voters.

Thus it is surprising that Sarkozy did not want to meet Bayrou over a debate, sticking to the tradition that the campaign should be between the two winners of the second round. And that is likely a mistake as Sarkozy breaks the main rule of second round campaigns: try to become the image of France! The mood is for a change in the ways things are done and this sudden "conservative" approach is not in l'air du temps.

But Sarkozy also knows how to read results. A Royal victory would probably mean a legislative hemorrhage toward the new UDF that Bayrou as promised to create. French right wing electors ever so pragmatic will realize that their interests might be better defended by Bayrou folks inside a coalition where they will exert a moderating effect, than outside the parliamentary majority with the UMP, which by the way has lost control of the regional government for the next three years. And a safe victory WITH Bayrou might not be much better for the UMP. No, Sarkozy knows that his gamble is to win by appealing directly to enough Bayrou voters. If he succeeds he will get a parliamentary majority in June. If he loses? The UMP might be out of office for the next ten years, even if it does not divide itself and meet further trouble. If he wins with Bayrou? He will be blackmailed by him as this one will all but immediately start his presidential campaign of 2012. That is, Sarkozy winning with direct help from Bayrou would also become a hostage of Bayrou.

Conclusion (for the time being...)

Sarkozy and Royal have in fact evaluated very well the Sunday result.

The socialist candidate knows that she is in trouble and that the best she can get is a presidency with a coalition government with Bayrou. She went for it.

The UMP candidate has realized that he has a chance of winning without Bayrou, or play it safe but accept that he will depend on Bayrou good will for the next 5 years. He decided to go for broke and win on his own.

Paradoxically both have made a choice that appeals to the French in their president. Royal decided to play the unification card. Sarkozy played the strong presidency above political parties card. It remains to see which one will win. So far polls are smiling to Sarkozy but today's event could quickly turn this into a tight race, relying all on May 2 debate.

Whatever, it will give us one of the most interesting second round campaign in memory.

-The end-

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