Eight pm at the close of the second round, and the results are in from the Pyrénées-Atlantiques 2nd. Nathalie Chabanne, the Socialist Party candidate: 20,090 votes. Francois Bayrou, leader, founder and Presidential standard-bearer for the centrist Democratic Movement: 14,169. That’s like Gordon Brown losing Kirkcaldy. To Sarah Teather.
Where did it all go wrong? Bayrou was born and raised in the constituency. In a hot streak from 1983 to 2007, he won every election he fought in his hometown of Pau, from the local council to the National Assembly. Five years ago, he came within touching distance of a second-placed finish in the first round of the Presidential elections. He was dubbed ‘the Third Man’ of French politics and his new centrist party, the Democratic Movement (“MoDem”, a continuation of an earlier Bayrou creation, the New UDF), looked set to take France by storm.
Bayrou offered the typical centrist cocktail – sound public finances, a measure of social justice, and the need for what he termed the ‘ouverture’ of politics, the destruction of the traditional left-right axis – and, in 2007, French voters found it very congenial indeed. The Parti Socialiste – who hadn’t won a Presidential election since 1988 – looked finished. The task of opposing the right looked to belong to the centre, not a recessional Left. But the financial crisis – and deep-seated opposition to the reforms of “Sarkozyism” – changed everything. French voters no longer wanted a little from Column A with a little from Column B. They were either for Sarkozyism, or against it.
A resurgent PS made gains across the country in cantonal and mayoral elections, against both the Sarkozyiste UMP and MoDem. Bayrou himself was defeated by the PS in his 2008 bid to become Mayor of Pau: an intimation of political mortality in what used to be his manor. Within a year, MoDem had gone from being the force of tomorrow to a battle for its very survival. The mission for the 2012 election had gone from being ‘break into the top two’ to ‘stem the bleeding’.
In the end, the Presidential election simply confirmed the worst. Bayrou’s vote was almost halved, finishing behind not only Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, but the extreme right in the form of Marine Le Pen and the far left in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He barely scraped a third-placed finish in Pau. Perhaps hoping to leave open the possibility of a future alliance with the Left, perhaps out of genuine opposition to Sarkozy’s attempts to woo Le Pen backers in the second round, Bayrou threw his support behind Hollande. Hollande triumphed, but Bayrou was doomed.
The UMP – which had, for years, stood down its candidate in Pau – were out for Bayrou’s blood. With the PS’s Nathalie Chabanne, a former government official, choosing to remain in the race, Bayrou faced an uphill battle just to finish second.
Bayrou’s defeat means goodbye from him, and goodbye too from MoDem. With the exception of the PS, French political parties exist largely as extensions of their leader’s will. That leaves both the UMP and MoDem facing at best, a period of transition, and at worst, extinction. The new optimism on the Left was summed up by the front-page of the left-leaning daily, Libération, which depicted Francois Hollande in superhero costume, ushering in a new era of Socialist hegemony.
For centrist parties across Europe, the defeat of Bayrou marks a turning of the tide. Bayrou’s third-placed finish in 2007 – at a time when the most-common reaction to a picture of Nick Clegg was ‘here, this Blair impersonator’s a bit rubbish!’ – breathed new life and optimism into centrist circles. The Bayrou triumph, was followed by the German Free Democratic Party’s best-ever result in the 21st Century, and a return to the government after years of opposition. In Britain, ‘the Liberal moment’ ended an eighty-eight year wait from peacetime government. Now, both parties’ ratings are in the basement nationally, and are suffering heavy losses at a local level. For social democratic parties, the weakening of their old centrist opponents would be a cause for celebration, but their replacements are far more sinister. In Germany, outside the corridors of official power, but increasingly prevalent on the streets, the far-right marches. The legislative elections in France marked not just the defeat of MoDem: but the entry into the National Assembly of the Front Nationale.
This Week’s European Talking Points
- It was the Tweet wot lost it. Former Socialist Presidential candidate and Francois Hollande’s long-time ex Segolene Royal went down to an ignominious defeat in La Rochelle to the independent grassroots candidate, Olivier Falorni. In a scandalous twist, Falorni received an unusual endorsement in the form of a Tweet from Francois Hollande’s current partner, the political journalist Valerie Trierwaller. A comfortable majority for the Socialists in the National Assembly heals all wounds, however, and Hollande may be a little better off for what must surely be the final end for a former political rival.
- Germany’s buccaneering Pirate Party might be sweeping all before it, gaining seats in regional Parliaments, and likely to be major players nationally after the next election, but their clothing choices have come under fire from parliamentarians. Speaking to the Berlin newspaper BZ, SPD politician Tom Schreiber complained that one Pirate Party politician wore shorts that were “practically underwear”. Schreiber proceeded to lay down a few ground rules for the Pirates: “Please wear long trousers, so that nothing peeks out.”
- Even with a charismatic new leader, the Dutch Labour Party can’t fix its woes. A new poll shows it trailing both its long-term opponents, the Liberals, and insurgent leftist party, the Socialists, who are neck-and-neck. The Netherlands goes to the polls on September 12th.