Bayrou, heir to liberal-right UDF tradition, joins forces with center-left Macron

François Bayrou, giving up plans to run in what would have been his fourth attempt at the French presidency, has endorsed Emmanuel Macron. (Facebook)

In French politics, François Bayrou is always the bridesmaid — never the bride.

That was true in the 1990s, it was true in the 2000s and it now seems true in the 2010s as the longtime centrist ended his own presidential hopes for 2017 and endorsed the center-left independent candidate, Emmanuel Macron.

The 65-year-old Bayrou, who got his start in politics in the 1980s, and who has waged three earlier presidential campaigns, is forming an alliance with Macron as France turns to the first round of its presidential election on April 23, a presidential runoff on May 7 and parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18.

In stark language, Bayrou warned that his country was at ‘extreme risk’ after an election campaign that had so far ‘made a mockery of France,’ a risk that necessitates an ‘exceptional response’ — in the form of elevating the relatively inexperienced 39-year-old Macron to the presidency.

Bayrou came closest to winning the presidency himself in 2007, when he appealed to voters with doubts about both the center-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Ségolène Royal, winning nearly a fifth of the French electorate in that year. But his appeal faltered in recent years, and polls show that Bayrou would win merely 5% or 6% of the vote among an extraordinarily fluid and crowded 2017 field.

Once a rising moderate star of the French right, Bayrou served as education minister under former prime minister Édouard Balladur from 1993 to 1995 and then under Alain Juppé from 1995 to 1997. Bayrou also serves as the mayor of Pau, the capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of southwest France. Yet Bayrou never incredibly warmed to Sarkozy, and he has excoriated François Fillon, the former Sarkozy prime minister who came from behind to win the Républicain nomination (eclipsing both Sarkozy and one-time frontrunner Juppé). Fillon has been stung by accusations in recent weeks that, while in office, he funneled public funds to his wife, Penelope, and children for jobs they never actually performed.

Greater scrutiny is taking its toll on Macron

Though Macron’s popularity soared in December and January, his campaign has stalled with voters at around 20% support. With the far-right candidate of the Front national, Marine Le Pen, leading the first-round vote with around 26%, Fillon and Macron are essentially tied for second place and the all-important ticket to the May presidential runoff against Le Pen. Polls show that either Fillon or Macron today would trounce Le Pen by a nearly 60%-to-40% margin. 

Bayrou’s support could give Macron some credibility at a time when Macron’s magical touch is faltering. Part of Macron’s problem is that, in rising to frontrunner status, he’s become a larger target from both Fillon and the newly nominated Socialist candidate, former education minister Benoît Hamon. Part of Macron’s problem, however, is self-inflicted. Macron angered conservative voters last week after visiting Algeria and calling French colonial rule a ‘crime against humanity.’ Last week, he angered leftist voters by suggesting the Hollande government ‘humiliated’ opponents of same-sex marriage when it enacted marriage equality in 2013. His visit this week to London could energize his widespread support in what he termed France’s ‘sixth-largest city,’ but it will do little to endear him to voters in France’s de-industrialized northeast and elsewhere.

At a time when electorates in the developed world are embracing outsiders, Macron has embraced the mantle of ‘change.’ He resigned as economy and industry minister last summer and left the Socialists to form his own ‘En Marche‘ (‘Forward’) movement, to the annoyance of president François Hollande and Hollande’s government. But Macron, in many ways, embodies the the status quo as a fierce defender of traditional economic liberalism, globalization and a strong European Union. A former investment banker and a graduate of France’s elite school of national administration, Macron’s political career took off as a senior aide to Hollande, and his platform, among the five major candidates, bears the most similarity to the reformist policies that Hollande, now wildly unpopular, has unsuccessfully tried to implement for the last three years.

What Bayrou brings to Macron’s movement

Macron has all but won the public support of Royal, now France’s environmental minister, and he could well win more supporters among moderate Socialists appalled by Hamon, who lingers far behind in fourth place and who has espoused a far more stridently leftist platform than Hollande. Hamon defeated the one-time Socialist frontrunner, former prime minister Manuel Valls, campaigning on higher taxes for the wealthy, lowering the French workweek to 32 hours and a tax on robotics that replace human workers. Last week, French economist Thomas Piketty, one of the leading global voices against growing economic inequality,  joined Hamon’s campaign as a senior aide. Increasingly, rumors suggest that other leading Socialists, including finance minister Michel Sapin and even Hollande himself, are far more keen on Macron than Hamon, widely seen as a lost cause.

A Hollande endorsement might actually lose Macron support. But Bayrou’s endorsement gives Macron his most prominent supporter from France’s center-right tradition. When polls survey the French electorate both with and without Bayrou as a candidate, around half of Bayrou’s support flows to Macron, but Bayrou’s voters also seem to disperse to the other major candidates — primarily Fillon, but also in smaller amounts to Le Pen, Hamon and even far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon pick up some of his supporters.

Though Bayrou ultimately endorsed Hollande over Sarkozy in 2012, he and his party have sided more often with the center-right opposition, and Sarkozy’s Republicans (however reluctantly) endorsed Bayrou’s successful bid to become Pau mayor in 2014. Bayrou personally endorsed his longtime friend Juppé over Fillon in the November center-right presidential primary. In a vacuum, without the taint of ‘Penelopegate,’ Bayrou’s Christian democratic voters might find more common cause with Fillon than with Macron.

All of which means that it isn’t a sure thing that Bayrou’s endorsement will necessarily boost Macron to a material lead over Fillon. If Bayrou’s support nudges Macron by 2% or 3%, that’s still just within the margin of error of a race with eight weeks to go and several high-profile opportunities for Fillon to make a bid for voters naturally inclined to the reformist right. Moreover, if Le Pen does win the first round as polls predict, Bayrou’s decision will make it likelier that her margin of victory is even smaller, insofar as one less candidate will draw votes that might otherwise go to Fillon and Macron. That will benefit whichever candidate ends up in the final runoff against Le Pen.

It’s nevertheless a smart move for both Macron and for Bayrou, who stands to gain a prominent position — perhaps even prime minister — in a Macron administration. If Macron were to win the presidency, Bayrou’s support and the support of Bayrou’s centrist party, the Mouvement démocrate (MoDem, Democratic Movement) would help anchor Macron’s bid to win a parliamentary majority in June, given the historically low support for both the center-right Republicans and the center-left Socialists.

Though Bayrou’s decision to forego the 2017 race seems to stabilize the campaign with five major candidates, his decision might add more pressure on Hamon and Mélenchon to form an alliance. Were Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left Front de gauche (Left Front), to join forces with Hamon, it would conceivably boost Hamon, as the single candidate of the French left, into contention. Mélenchon has so far resisted any such alliance, but eight weeks is of course a long time.

Bayrou the keeper of the ‘alternative Republican’ UDF flame

Bayrou got his start in politics in the early 1980s as part of the Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF, Union for French Democracy), the vehicle of former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The UDF, and Giscard d’Estaing’s rise to the French presidency, constituted an alternative conservative vision for France, in contrast to the ‘Gaullist’ vision that dominated nearly two decades of French policymaking under presidents Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou. Whereas the Gaullist right embraced strong support for the French central state, a conservative view on social policy in line with Catholic orthodoxy and suspicion of growing European union, the independent-minded republicans who eventually formed the UDF instead welcomed European integration, a more market-based French economy and liberalization on LGBT rights, abortion and divorce.

Fourteen years in the wilderness under Socialist president François Mitterand, however, followed by Gaullist Jacques Chirac’s victory in the 1995 presidential election (who only narrowly triumphed in the first round over the UDF-supported Balladur) and Chirac’s subsequent 12-year rule, left the UDF in tatters. In the long run, after Giscard d’Estaing failed to win reelection in 1981, however, the UDF legacy has been to push the French center-right toward a more market-friendly and pro-European orientation under both Chirac and Sarkozy. Bayrou, left holding the dregs of a once-formidable political tradition, transformed the party into today’s much smaller Democratic Movement.

Bayrou first ran for president in 2002, landing in fourth place and winning just 6.84% of the vote. Like almost everyone else in France, Bayrou then endorsed incumbent Chirac for a second term over the Front national‘s leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who narrowly and shockingly edged into second place in the first-round vote. After his strong third-place finish in 2007, when he won 18.57% of the vote, Bayrou refused to endorse either candidate. Though he ran once again in 2012, he won just 9.13% of the vote before ultimately backing Hollande and subsequently losing his reelection bid to France’s national assembly later that year.

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