Centrist Bayrou trips up Sarkozy at start of presidential race

Bayrou Sarkozy

Bayrou Sarkozy

Centrist politician François Bayrou on Sunday said he would run as a candidate in France’s presidential election next year if Nicolas Sarkozy won the right-wing Les Républicains party nomination, in a new affront to the former president.

Speaking to supporters gathered in the western French town of Guidel, Bayrou accused Sarkozy of pitting French people against each other on the campaign trail and once again endorsed his main rival in the primary contest, Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé.

“When politicians aim to stir up voters about issues that we thought belonged to the past – our origins, our ancestors, a false national tale, religions, the old ‘this is our country’ – it’s a sign of dangerous times,” Bayrou said, referring to Sarkozy’s claims that France’s national identity is under threat.

Sarkozy’s tough talk on immigrants and Muslims have prompted comparisons to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

“Dividing people systematically is an unpatriotic approach,” Bayrou declared, although he avoided using Sarkozy’s name.

At the same time he praised Juppé for rejecting the temptation to harp on about identity politics, calling him an “honest man, steadfast and responsible”, compliments he has often repeated over the past two years.

The popular mayor of the southwestern city of Pau, Bayrou has played political ‘spoiler’ to Sarkozy in the past. He told constituents he would vote for François Hollande in the 2012 presidential run-off, in a move that many think helped propel the Socialist candidate to victory over Sarkozy.

Bayrou, 65, has oscillated between the right and left during a political career spanning more than three decades, but appears to be keeping his distance from Sarkozy.

“Between 2006 and 2012, Bayrou progressively separated himself from the right, almost forging an alliance with the left,” Pierre Bréchon, a politics professor and researcher at Sciences Po Grenoble university, told FRANCE 24. “Today he is swinging back towards the right, but not the right that Sarkozy represents,” the academic added.

France’s moderate

The founder and president of France’s Democratic Movement (MoDem) party, Bayrou came in third place in the 2007 presidential election, claiming around 19 percent of votes. The self-declared “third man” of French politics nevertheless saw his support dip into the single-digit level in the 2012 poll.

Around 60 percent of voters consider Bayrou to be a “likeable” politician, but only 28 percent think he would make a good president, a study by the French polling firm Odoxa published on Sunday revealed.

The opinion poll also showed that a majority of voters still think Bayrou “best represents” centrist politics in France, with a 12-point advantage over his nearest rival from competing moderate parties.

“Bayrou remains an important figure in the political landscape. French centrists have traditionally supported free-market economic policies, while being open to social and welfare programmes,” Bréchon said.

Future ministry?

So while Bayrou is unlikely to lead the country as president one day, as his centrist predecessor Valéry Giscard d’Estaing did from 1974-1981, he could still help sway the outcome of next year’s key ballot.

Bayrou’s impassioned support for Juppé might even earn him a ministry position if his candidate wins the general election, but Bréchon did not think the centrist was using his endorsement as a bargaining chip.

“If Juppé wins the election, you might think that he would form a government that includes people who endorsed him, but I don’t think Bayrou has adopted such an opportunistic strategy. It’s not his style,” said Bréchon. “He is a centrist, and his alliances have shifted in the past, but his political ideas are clear.”