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Are French centrists losing their middle ground?

French centrist figurehead François Bayrou has launched a fresh appeal to moderate voters ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections in June. But for the political middle ground in France, support seems to be dwindling.


Once a formidable political force in France, centrists are facing a bleak future.

Centrist figurehead and MoDem party leader François Bayrou, who by his own admission performed dismally in France’s recent presidential poll, has launched a new movement to entice moderate voters ahead of parliamentary elections in June. But it seems fewer and fewer voters are looking to the middle ground for political alternatives.

Bayrou, an outspoken Roman Catholic and former education minister in two conservative governments, said Thursday that he would campaign to create a center block of independent lawmakers in parliament. The 60-year-old went on to call on centrists on both the left and right to join his new “Centre for France” umbrella movement.

The names of around 400 MP candidates belonging to the new “centre pole” will appear on May 10 ballots, with half of them coming from the ranks of his own MoDem party, Bayrou told a press conference in Paris. A representative from France’s southwest, the veteran politician will be defending his own parliamentary seat.

“These candidates will have a single marching order: to be useful to France, so that it can escape its divisions. They will be men and women who do not belong to one camp, but men and women who belong to one country and one people,” Bayrou said.

Indeed, France has recently experienced a widening political divide among voters. With 9% support, Bayrou finished the presidential race behind candidates from the far-right (18%) as well as a hard-left coalition (11%) allied with France’s Communist Party.

According to an opinion poll by France’s BVA this week, the upcoming parliamentary election does not look any brighter for Bayrou. Only 4% of voters said they would vote for a MoDem candidate in June.

Eric Bonnet, director at opinion pollsters BVA, said the figures project the MoDem’s “collapse”. The party’s projected score “is five points less than what Bayrou obtained 15 days ago [in the first round of France’s presidential election], and even four points less than the score obtained by the MoDem [in parliamentary elections] five years ago,” Bonnet pointed out.

The lost electorate

Bayrou has gone from being the triumphant third-place candidate of the 2007 presidential race, to a fifth-place non-story in 2012. Three and a half million fewer voters backed the MoDem hopeful in 2012 compared to the previous election.

It’s been a long and slow demise for Bayrou, the successor of the once-powerful Union for
French Democracy (UDF) party. In 1974, the UDF saw its candidate Valéry Giscard d'Estaing go all the way to the Elysée Palace.

Under Bayrou’s watch the UDF evolved into the MoDem party and suffered painful breakups. In 2007, MP Hervé Morin split with the MoDem, taking three-quarters of the party’s parliamentary seats with him. In 2010, MoDem co-founder Corinne Lepage also jumped ship.

Both Morin and Lepage launched unsuccessful bids to become presidential candidates in this year’s presidential election, and they will again challenge Bayrou in next month’s parliamentary poll.

“I agree with Mr. Bayrou’s idea that there is a place for centrists in French politics, but unlike Mr. Bayrou I think centrists have to take clearer positions,” Lepage told FRANCE 24, adding that she would not join Bayrou’s new movement and that she was presenting her own counter list of 70 centrist candidates in the upcoming election.

Despite Bayrou’s announcement that he would vote for Socialist Party candidate François Hollande’s in the presidential runoff four days before the poll, 41% of his supporters picked outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy, while fewer, 29%, chose Hollande, according to an election day exit poll by Ipsos.

Ball in the Left’s court

Bayrou told reporters on Thursday that he rejected any ministerial positions for members of his MoDem party in president-elect François Hollande’s future Socialist government. But this declaration hardly sounded like a pledge to remain a neutral player.

The centrist seems to have won no favour among Socialist Party decision makers, even after saying he would cast a runoff ballot for Hollande. On Wednesday, the Socialist camp said it would present a challenger to contest Bayrou’s parliamentary seat.

He will also face off against a candidate from Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party, which considers Bayrou shattered a long standing entente between the political right and the centre when he publicly backed Hollande.

Bayrou’s own predicament reflects a problem facing many centrists who feel rejected by both extremes.

“I think the ball is in the Left’s court,” said Lepage. “Many centrists have shown that they are willing to work as part of a presidential majority with the left. But if there is no opening on the left to welcome them, centrists will be condemned to stay with the right.”

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