Even the most professorial of France’s current presidential candidates-we’re speaking of Fran√ßois Bayrou-knows that it takes a strong dose of medium to get the message across. No one ever won the presidency by appealing exclusively to the upper 10% intelligence bracket.

So I am left wondering what explains the bizarrre visual effect created by the stage set for his latest appearance: Candidate Bayrou slipped into place between an orange-pink backdrop and matching podium… and turned into a decalcomania. Either the color itself or the way it was flatly applied as foreground and background eliminated shadows and depth effect, making him look like a self-sticking life-size facsimile of himself.

It’s Le Socialeconomy!

Riding high on the latest polls that boosted him to the magical 17% he had calculated as his jumping off point to victory, Bayrou presented, against that orange-pink backdrop, his “socialeconomic” program. “Socialeconomy,” is a term he coined to describe his distinctive brand of economics. It might be compared to compassionate conservatism though Bayrou actually proposed a “New Deal.” This phrase conveys the old-fashioned modernity Bayrou offers voters who want a highbrow alternative to the “sterile” Right-Left cleavage.

Though Bayrou reserves most of his barbs for Sarkozy he does take issue with S√©gol√®ne Royal’s extravagant promises of largesse for the unskilled masses and demagogical threats to punish multinationals that distribute huge profits to stockholders while downsizing workers without asking permission.

Bayrou’s socialeconomic program, in which every economic measure is linked to a corresponding “social” or welfare measure, is based on the assumption that an unfettered, flourishing economy does not automatically favor the general welfare. Bayrou’s recipe for stimulating the sluggish French economy is a plodding reform package involving a balanced budget and small increment improvements– a 5% yearly increase in the research budget over a ten-year period, a referendum to reform the pension system, improved synergy between academic and professional spheres, slight advantages to employees willing to work 39 instead of 35 hours. He would make deficit spending unconstitutional, tax fossil fuel to encourage alternate energy sources, and somehow prod banks to invest in business.

Bayrou proposes a Small Business Act similar to the one established in the U.S. in the Fifties. This would favor small business in bidding for modest government contracts, and reduce the employer’s contribution to the employee’s social protection package; a contribution that doubles the real cost of French salaries.

In the interim, Bayrou would institute a quick fix for job creation: every company would be allowed an exoneration of the employer’s social security contribution for two newly hired employees. Similar selective exonerations have been applied in the past without ever demonstrating their effectiveness. Bayrou believes that the only thing missing is the spark! Something that would awaken and liberate energies, create a momentum, run on its own steam. But that wouldn’t be socialeconomy! It would be crude, crass American money-worshiping capitalism.

Bayrou, who presents himself as the ethical, authentic, straight-talking grassroots candidate, is trying to make a virtue of transversal democracy. But the argument is hollow and may wear thin as the campaign moves into its decisive phase.

Neither right nor left, Bayrou is president of the Center-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), created in 1978 by the pseudo-aristocrat Val√©ry Giscard d’Estaing and integrated, since its creation, into the right wing coalition (RPR, later renamed UMP). But the UDF declined under pressure from Chirac’s merciless party machine and Bayrou came out a loser in the infighting. When Chirac finally released his iron grip, Nicolas Sarkozy had overcome all his rivals, withstood all attempts at destabilization, and took control of the party.

Bayrou was left with the choice of falling into line or staking an independent role outside the UMP. He decided the time was ripe for a winning presidential bid from the Center…and quickly surged beyond his also-ran 2002 score of 6.8% to his present popularity level of 17%.

But where exactly is the center of French politics and how can one keep it in place? Bayrou says he will govern with competent men and women from all parties, without asking them to abandon their affiliation. But the generosity does not work both ways. When Deputy André Santini, VP of the UDF, announced his allegiance to Sarkozy he was asked to take a leave of absence from the party.

It seems that Bayrou has attracted Socialist voters embarrassed by S√©gol√®ne Royal’s amateurism. Will they drift back to their home base now that the old guard “elephants” have been enlisted in her new improved campaign team? Or, if Royal’s campaign continues to stumble and falter, will Bayrou pick up the pieces of a Socialist party in ruins? But how can he continue to seduce the Left without leaning in their direction…and weakening his right-wing anchorage? Sarkozy reminds UDF legislators coming up for election in June that their constituency has always been on the Right.

Bayrou’s third man positioning works better as an ideal than a practice. Though he prefers to keep the secrets of Centrism secret, he did name Dominique Strauss-Kahn as a man he’d ask to serve as PM in his bipartisan government; DSK is one of the elephants now running behind S√©gol√®ne. Another example of his kind of man, Chirac’s ex-FM Michel Barnier, is the epitome of the outgoing president’s cockeyed Arab politics, even though Chirac dumped him ignominiously. Romano Prodi was Bayrou’s perfect Centrist model, the proof that Europeans want Left and Right to work together for the common good; Prodi just slipped on a coalition banana peel and has gone back for more, but how much and for how long?

European Union

Fran√ßois Bayrou claims to be the only candidate who loves the European Union as it deserves. He wants to see France resume its natural role at the helm of a refocused EU, and promises to call for a Constitutional Convention in 2009 that will adopt a concise readable document to replace the stalled Treaty-drafted under the direction of the UDF’s own Giscard d’Estaing– ratified by 18 countries, but rejected by France and Holland. Despite the failure of all attempts to create a common EU foreign and defense policy, Bayrou is confident that the Union could function as a counterweight to the American “superpower.”

“I’m not fascinated by the American model or by the American president who committed one of the most serious historical errors of the decade with the war in Iraq. I was against that war because it is not a just war, because the decision was made against the international community and against the UN.”

Bayrou’s faith in a united Europe cleansed of the ills of nationalism mirrors his transversal stance in domestic politics; virtue lies in a universalist ethic untainted by affiliation. Europeans brandish this universalism as a sign of superiority over the “backward nationalism” of countries like Israel and the U.S. Confusing the middle of the road with the moral high ground, Europeans shirk their responsibilities while demanding an influential role in foreign affairs. They camp on “reasonable” solutions to the point of believing that the problems, too, are reasonable. Treating domestic and worldwide conflict with denial, they accuse the U.S. and its allies of stirring up trouble.

The Europe they defend is more an illusion than a reality. The European reputation for finesse, culture, cuisine, skills, and monuments is seriously eroded from within and faced with competition from other societies that unashamedly seek financial profits, cultural excellence, and fine craftsmanship. While the world has changed radically in the past three decades, Europe keeps getting grungier and shabbier while other countries are developing savoir faire, and culture flourishes in free economies where wealth is created, bringing museums in its wake.

Town, Country & Banlieue
Fifty-five year old François Bayrou, father of six, grandfather of ten, comes from a Béarnais peasant family in the Southwest. He has the tweedy look of the professeur agrégé of Classic Literature and the carved features of an honest man of the soil.

Pugnacious in the early stages of the campaign, Bayrou has shifted to a smoother self-confident tone as the rise in his ratings brings a concomitant improvement in media exposure. As relaxed on the Net as on a goose farm, he defends traditional agriculture and press freedom. His first appearances on the independent TV channel TF1 were quite antagonistic, as he accused popular newscaster Claire Chazal of fostering the Sarkozy-Royal duel to the exclusion of other possibilities…himself, for example. He wants to prohibit companies such as Bouyges, Dassault, and Matra that depend on government contracts from owning mass media outlets.

Bayrou does not cater to the open-borders lobby; he defends strict controls on illegal immigration and prompt deportation of rejected asylum seekers. Nor is he soft on crime; “Republican” law and order must be restored in public schools, citizens have a right to come and go safely, juvenile delinquents should be taken in hand and properly reformed.

Still Bayrou doesn’t mind leaving the tough guy role to Nicolas Sarkozy while mocking S√©gol√®ne Royal’s Bountiful Mother promises-everything for free health care, contraception, child care, drug rehabilitation, housing, loans, cure-alls, sustenance, priority, and sympathy to the underprivileged.

Royal accuses Sarkozy of turning people against each other in an ultraliberal jungle of competition for workers and punishment for offenders, whereas she will uplift the entire society in one beautiful swoop. And everyone, including Bayrou, points the finger at Sarkozy for not building the requisite 20% of public housing in Neuilly, where he is still nominally mayor. Bayrou has suggested that the 20% quota could be imposed on all collective housing construction, including luxury apartment buildings. Social harmony, he believes, will naturally grow out of cohabitation between diverse classes, races, ethnic groups…

Most of the presidential candidates big and small–Communist Marie-George Buffet, ecolo Dominique Voynet, outlaw Jos√© Bov√©, Kewpie doll postman Olivier Besancenot-make it a point of honor to hang out in the banlieue. For every middle or upper class refined successful French person whose opinion is solicited in the media there must be a dozen guys from the ‘hood pointing fingers, trashing Sarkozy, making claims on the public pie while young ladies in hijab look on with approval.

Despite Sarkozy’s enduring popularity-he has come out as second-round winner in 28 out of 28 polls to date-he is taunted in certain media for not being welcome in “sensitive neighborhoods” because he used the “r” word– “racaille.” This is scored as 1 for the racaille, 0 for Sarkozy. No one has suggested that the racaille have an obligation, as French citizens, to “allow” any and all candidates to electioneer wherever they see fit. No, the banlieue is treated like Islamic waqf territory, and refusal to admit intruders is sanctified!

Fran√ßois Bayrou was overjoyed by Molly Moore’s coverage of his visit to the Val Fourr√© neighborhood of Mantes La Jolie. The Washington Post journalist, says Bayrou’s official blog, was so impressed by the ease with which he moved around without heavy police protection, that she rates him over and above all the other candidates. Bayrou, says Moore, wants to do away with the very idea of dangerous neighborhoods. Her article is worth countless visits to the White House, says Bayrou’s blog, apparently unaware of Moore’s long years of fawning over Israel’s “banlieusards,” the Palestinians.

Moore’s banlieue article, picked up by WSJE, begins with a description of Bayrou shaking hands at an outdoor market. A young man greets him: “Salaam alaikum!” And what does Bayrou reply? “Salaam alaikum.”

Hmph! That’s not very sophisticated, but Molly, who knows her way around the Territories, doesn’t comment. The banlieue vote counts, she says, and shows Bayrou counting it…unlike Sarkozy who is persona non grata: “Many critics blame him for inflaming the suburbs during the fall 2005 violence when he referred to some youths as ‘scum’…”

The article winds up with a straw poll from AC le feu ["Stop the Torching"] president Mohamed Mechmache, who calculates that the new [banlieue] voters will “make the difference in this election.” Moore doesn’t mention that AC le feu has enjoined all presidential candidates to sign the association’s draconian charter, rich in ultimatums such as the destitution of the mayor of any municipality that does not build the obligatory 20% of public housing.

Reality Factor
Bayrou has promised to make the battle against “exclusion” his priority. For the purposes of the presidential campaign, the media have imposed an across the board sociological interpretation of the November 2005 uprising. The story goes that ‘Islam isn’t the problem and diversity is the solution.’ Antisemitism, ambushing policemen, burning buses and passengers, recruiting homeboys for jihad in Iraq? All is forgiven.

The way the media tell it, the problem for France is ‘discrimination.’ A homeless illegal sticks his head out of a tent on Canal St. Martin and demands proper housing; half-literate in your face racaille make thinly veiled threats; misfits, failures, addicts, dysfunctionals air their grievances. You don’t have to be an economist to guess that a significant percentage of French voters are functioning normally and just might be looking for a candidate who gives them hopes of finding work, working hard, earning more, keeping more, moving ahead, sending their children to decent schools where merit is rewarded, and siding with the democracies when the chips are down.

It is tempting to imagine what might happen between now and the 22nd of April. As the Right-Left cleavage sharpens and clarifies in the course of the campaign, Bayrou’s non partisan label may be harder to sell; his score could level out, leaving him a close third but odd man out nonetheless. If the elephants haul Royal’s campaign out of the bogs but can’t keep her from sliding back, Bayrou could continue to cash in on Socialist votes and inch past her into the second round. If Sarkozy runs into obstacles and loses momentum, the front-runner vote could be split three ways, with entry into the second round riding on a hair’s breadth.

The competition is tonic and for this observer the hopes for change, however slim, are real: neither Bayrou, nor Royal, nor Sarkozy looks like your typical pr√©sident[e] de la R√©publique. And that’s a relief!