PARIS (JTA) — A French election that seemed to present a clear choice between left and right has become a three-way race with the emergence of a centrist horse farmer as a serious candidate. Recent polls put Francois Bayrou of the Union for French Democracy, or UDF, on an almost equal footing with Socialist Party candidate Segolene Royal. Bayrou has 21 percent support to 24 percent for Royal, according to polls. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy remains in the lead, with 28 percent support in the polls. Bayrou’s campaign has focused almost exclusively on domestic issues, though his supporters say a Bayrou administration would herald warmer French-Israeli relations.Bayrou, 55, who served as education minister in conservative governments
from 1993-’97, believes more should be done in school to fight racism
and anti-Semitism, and to ensure that no French citizen feels excluded
from society. He keeps warm relations with the French Jewish
community — “an open and friendly dialogue,” says Edith Lenczner,
communication director for CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular
French Jewish groups — and frequently participates in political
meetings organized by the community and CRIF’s annual gala evening. He
also was the first candidate to participate at a breakfast discussion
series with the CRIF executive board last year.
“Bayrou is a real democrat, and as such is attached to many of the values we believe in,” Lenczner said. Bayrou has succeeded in casting himself as France’s new hope, championing a break with traditional partisan divides. He favors a national unity government, seeking to bridge what he calls the “pre-historical” left-right divide. Polls indicate that voters hardly distinguish Bayrou’s agenda from the Socialist platform. Analysts claim that Bayrou, who started the race with only 13 percent support, has taken over the “third-man” position from right-winger Jean Marie Le Pen, and might even make it to a second-round run-off. From the outside, Bayrou’s platform might look like a hodgepodge of right-wing and left-wing ideas, focusing on what he calls the “6 E’s” of employment, environment, economy, education, exclusion and Europe. He promises to improve teachers’ working conditions, take care of the elderly and keep Turkey out of the European Union. Bayrou carefully cultivates his image as a middle-class farmer. Catholic, the father of six and a literature teacher, he raises horses at the family ranch in the Bearn region, close to the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. Unlike the typical French presidential candidate and most former French presidents, he did not graduate from the elite Public Administration school, and is probably the only candidate to own not just an old Peugeot but a tractor. His campaign headquarters is located in Paris’ chic 8th Arrondissement. The small, picturesque building is an old glass factory, renovated into an open working place where political activists, staff and members of Parliament try to control the frenzy of demand to join Bayrou’s UDF party. Legislator Rudy Salles, a UDF member and one of Bayrou’s closest allies, disagrees with the idea that Bayrou tries to please everybody, as Sarkozy has charged. On the Middle East, for instance, Salles says Bayrou had a well-defined policy long before he started running for president. Bayrou has visited Israel some 20 times and maintains good contacts with Arab leaders. “Bayrou loves Israel. It’s a real democracy. Only in such a democracy can a prime minister be interrupted by a TV anchor telling him his time has run out,” Salles said. For Salles, the fact that he himself chairs the Israel-France parliamentary friendship group proves that Bayrou is committed to Israel’s safety and security.Bayrou would like to see France more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. France, he notes, has the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe, and both take a natural interest in what’s happening in the Middle East. France also is the biggest power in the Mediterranean region, and should act as such, Salles says. “The Middle East needs Europe, and we need, the international community needs, for Europe to play the impartial mediator role, the role of those who can provide both sides with guarantees, a role which the U.S. is no longer capable of playing,” Bayrou declared this week at his campaign’s biggest rally yet. According to Salles, Bayrou has some concrete propositions to help break the Israeli-Arab deadlock.”We are the No. 1 contributor to the International Francophone organization. We should put all our weight on Lebanon to convince it into letting Israel join us,” Salles says. “When people share a culture and a language, it’s easier to promote peace between them.” Bayrou is strongly attached to the secularism of the French republic. He rejects any “communitarian” approach, and does not believe in a Jewish vote per se. “Those who try to seduce minority communities create tomorrow’s conflicts,” Salles quotes Bayrou as saying.