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France’s Third Man

Should we be watching the French presidential campaign with admiration or alarm? Or perhaps a bit of both? It is undeniably a great “show” with all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster, including a surprising plot twist: the emergence of a “Third Man,” François Bayrou.

Even if his victory remains unlikely, Bayrou must now be taken seriously. First and foremost, he has found in Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy two remarkable spokespersons for his candidacy. The more Royal returns to the “classics” of the Socialist Party, and the more Sarkozy openly courts the extreme right, the more Bayrou’s popularity rises. Indeed, persistent doubts among the French about Royal’s competence and Sarkozy’s character are the primary reasons for his dramatic rise in public opinion polls, from 7% support at the start of the campaign to 22% now.

The second reason for Bayrou’s spectacular rise has less to do with personalities and more with France’s national mood. The very reason that led a majority of the French to say “no” to the referendum on the European Union’s draft Constitutional Treaty in May 2005 may lead them to vote for Bayrou, the most pro-European of all candidates.

Why this paradox? A vote that meant saying “no” to the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 now means saying “no” to the leaders of the French left and right. In the 2002 presidential election, frustration with the system fueled strong support for the extremes, with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far right, qualifying for the second-round runoff. In 2007, by contrast – and this constitutes real progress – a large segment of the French population is expressing its frustration with the system by being tempted to vote for the “extreme center,” i.e., Bayrou.