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French centrists struggle to hold the middle ground

After a surprise surge by the far-right and far-left in Sunday's presidential election, French centrist voters have been stripped of their kingmaker status. As their defeated candidate wavers ahead of a May 6 runoff, they are increasingly divided.


Centrist leader François Bayrou has promised to weigh in on the second round of France’s presidential vote before Election Day. But while he hopes to hold sway on the May 6 contest pitting incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy against Socialist challenger François Hollande, the moderate politician seems to be losing control of his own Democratic Movement (MoDem) party.

Bayrou’s 9.1% support placed him fifth in the first round of the election, behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen (19.7%) and extreme-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (11.1%). On Wednesday, he sent a letter to Sarkozy and Hollande, asking the two men to reply to his concerns in view of a potential second-round endorsement.

This week, the centrist leader appeared to be distancing himself from Sarkozy, after statements by the incumbent that likened fiscal demands made by centrist voters to those of the far-right. Bayrou said such comparisons were “absurd” and “offensive”, but stopped short of saying he would deny Sarkozy his support.

Bayrou has pledged to make his choice known on May 3, the day after the two remaining presidential candidates will face off in a much-anticipated television debate.

It remains to be seen if people who voted for Bayrou on April 22 will actually take his preference into account as they vote in the second round. According to a survey by the French polling firm Ipsos, 34% of MoDem sympathizers are expected to vote for Hollande, while 33% said they would back Sarkozy. The remaining centrist electorate said it would abstain.

From ‘third’ to ‘fifth’ man

A parliamentarian from southwestern France since the late 1980s, Bayrou was the MoDem’s candidate in the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections. His 18.57% first round score in 2007 won him the title of France’s “third man” and confirmed his place as the legitimate successor of the once important centrist party, UDF.

However, 2009 European parliamentary elections and 2010 French regional elections handed Bayrou and the MoDem bitter defeats. “He has reached bottom,” explained Eric Bonnet, director of opinion studies at the BVA polling agency.

“He has lost the centrist image he forged in 2007. Voters on the right consider him left-leaning and voters on the left see him as a right-winger,” Bonnet said.

“This is a complicated period for the centre,” admitted Stephane Cosse, President of the MoDem’s branch in Paris. “We are experiencing a polarization of politics, which will last at least until the second round.”

Cosse argued that his party nevertheless remains an indispensable political force in France. “The centrist sensibility is deeply rooted in our country," he told FRANCE 24.

In the last presidential election, Bayrou eventually decided to sit out the run-off, keeping his personal choice secret and telling supporters to vote with their own conscience.

Leaving the middle road

The public expects a clear endorsement from Bayrou this time, but many within the MoDem are no longer waiting for their leader to get off the fence. And like voters, centrist lawmakers seem deeply divided over their choice.

On Monday, some forty MoDem elected leaders publicly backed Hollande in the runoff, saying their choice was based on “a need for clarity and change.” Olivier Henno, one of the handful of local centrist mayors who were part of the group, said “we no longer want to procrastinate.”

However, Jean Arthuis, a prominent centrist in the French Senate and an ally of Bayrou in the past, has said he would back Sarkozy. Arthuis called on centrists of all stripes to create alliances with the Right ahead of legislative elections in June.

Standing firm with Bayrou, Stephane Cosse said he was not ready to say who he would support in the presidential runoff. "We must closely listen to the statements of both candidates. Wait to see if they veer further to the right or left,” he said.

But as the countdown clock to May 6 ticks down, Bayrou and those loyal to him could find France’s political middle road an increasingly lonelier place to walk.

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