- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

Only a few months ago the French presidential election appeared to be a two-way race between Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy from the center-right and Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal from the left. Mr. Sarkozy and Miss Royal still lead in the public-opinion polls, but a third candidate, Francois Bayrou, has closed the gap. A “Sarko-Sego” runoff no longer seems inevitable. If Mr. Bayrou makes the runoff the polls suggest he would edge Mr. Sarkozy and defeat Miss Royal handily.

More than 60 percent of the French voters say they have no confidence in either the entrenched left or right. That augurs well for Mr. Bayrou, and reflects badly on President Jacques Chirac, who leaves a legacy of high unemployment, growing public debt and stalled domestic reforms. All three candidates, including Mr. Sarkozy, who has finally received an endorsement from M. Chirac, his former and now estranged mentor, have to varying degrees adopted an anti-Chirac platform.

Mr. Bayrou’s resume boasts little success; he was the national education minister in the mid-1990s, and ran for president in 2002, finishing fourth with less than 7 percent of the vote. That he comes from a place outside the political elite bolsters his appeal, and he has embraced the images evoked by his livelihood as a farmer and breeder of horses in a provincial village. Mr. Bayrou described himself to the British newspaper The Guardian as “just a man of the countryside who’s read a few books in his life.” Mr. Bayrou calls himself a centrist, although his party’s roots are in the center-right. “I am a man of the Third Way,” Mr. Bayrou has said, comparing himself to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A March 15 poll by the TNS-Sofres polling organization showed Mr. Bayrou defeating Mr. Sarkozy, 54 percent to 46 percent, in a runoff. He polled 60 percent to 40 percent for the Socialists’ Miss Royal. A poll by Ifop pollsters showed an even more decisive 19-point Bayrou margin over Mr. Sarkozy and 18 points over Miss Royal.

French presidential elections are not usually won from the center. Should Mr. Bayrou do it he promises to bridge the divide between the right and the left. He would have no choice. His party holds a mere 27 seats in the 577-seat parliament, and parliamentary elections in June are not likely to usher in sweeping change. His would be a broad coalition government. How well Mr. Bayrou addresses the charge that his plans are too vague, that his coalition will create instability and that he is in fact a man of the right, will determine whether he’s a serious challenger in the first round of voting on April 22.

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