The 17.25 train is about to leave. All is quiet at Paris' Gare de l'est ('east') station. Ten minutes before the train departs, one can just make out the figure of François Bayrou in the distance, and the photographers line up to start snapping. In the true fashion of a film star, Bayrou gives his best smile and shakes hands with friends and strangers alike. He gets on the train, finds himself in the wrong carriage, gets off and finally finds his seat. Destination: Reims (a city in north-Eastern France).
Bayrou is approachable during the journey, giving out interviews to the press. The UDF (Union for French Democracy) candidate’s speech hasn’t changed much from the beginning of the campaign. The centrist candidate, a farmer’s son from the Béarn province (at the foot of the Pyrenees), declares that he is the 'only one capable of uniting France’. Portraying himself as the alternative to the two extremes that exist in the shape of the Socialist Party and the right-wing current ruling UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), Bayrou believes that French political society needs an ‘electric shock’.
In the midst of so much press attention, passers-by at Reims station wonder what’s going on upon the politician's arrival. Who is he? ‘Bayrou,’ I answer. No reaction. ‘One of the election candidates’, I offer. The girls laugh excitedly, and approach the candidate to shout out to him that one of his trouser turn-ups is twisted. , The small hitch is quickly resolved as soon as he resumes walking.
The candidate’s march to the Élysée begins in the direction of the Town Hall. There, workers from ‘Chausson Outillage' (literally Chausson Tools), a car parts company are waiting to explain the company’s bankruptcy to Bayrou. After a brief explanation, the centrist leader agrees to change his itinerary to go and see the factory. Would that be because Ségolène Royal visited it the week before? A tour of the factory begins and the candidate is attentive. One of the factory workers approaches me, and I ask him whether or not the visit will influence his vote. ‘We’ll see’, he answers. ‘Sarkozy? Will he be coming?’ I ask. ‘I don’t think he’d even deign to pay us a visit, he doesn’t need to’, he concludes with a smile.
During the electoral campaign, Bayrou emphasises the role of the nation state or a 'protectionist EU.' According the centrist candidate, in order to confront globalisation, the EU 'has to protect our companies’ in response to the two emerging giants, India and China. Not everyone is completely convinced by his speech; ‘here we don’t get involved in politics, we’ve got our own problem’, whispers a Chausson Outillage worker to a journalist.
After words of support for the trade unions, the visit continues. Next stop, a press conference in the restaurant Brasserie Flo. A young man shouts at Bayrou just as we arrive, ‘fantastic place you’ve chosen here, suits your right-wing politics!’ He's referring to the luxurious surroundings of the restaurant. Bayrou smiles in response and heads for his over-attentive audience-of-one, but the young lad has jumped on his bike and peddled off. Incident over.
Throughout these days of intense campaigning, Bayrou plays down the importance of his descent in the opinion polls, despite having risen dramatically at the beginning of March. ‘There’s only one poll that counts,’ he declares. ‘The day the French vote’.
During the questions and answers session, Bayrou declares ‘on some topics, I’m more left-wing than the Socialist party,’ which will become the following day’s headline. To back up this declaration, he reminds them that he was the only candidate to oppose motorway privatisation whilst the Socialists did nothing to stop it.
Crowds of supporters
From the refined surroundings of Brasserie Flo to the sober background of an industrial estate where Bayrou will finish today’s round of intensive campaigning. There aren’t many cars about, and the journalists ask if the hall the UDF have organised for the visit will be empty. On the contrary. The hall is bedecked with orange. Around 3,000 party supporters wait impatiently for François Bayrou. T-shirts with the words ‘sexy centrist' are popular amongst the young UDF supporters.
In the midst of applause and shouting, Bayrou addresses his audience with words already familiar to the journalists who attended the press conference five minutes ago. ‘French society needs to change!’ he begins. ‘Immigration isn’t the root of all our problems, it’s a consequence,’ he continues. From ‘living together in harmony’, to the French ‘no’ to the European Constitution, touching on global warming and onto ‘the state can’t pay for everything’, Bayrou covers all the themes in a rather rigid, repetitive speech.
The day draws to a close, but the final stage of the campaign has only just begun. At a press conference held for the launch of his book Project d'espoir ('Project Hope'), on Tuesday March 3 Bayrou presented his election programme.
‘I hope for an unexpected ending,’ declares Bayrou when he talks about the elections. In the meantime the French ask themselves what kind of government they’d have if Bayrou were to win. Right of centre or left of centre? As the ‘third man’ never tires of repeating, ‘new alliances have to be made with the centrist majority’. But what exactly does that mean? If he is elected president, he will have to agree to obtain the majority to the National Assembly in the legislative elections of June 2007. We will see then, if these 'new alliances' that Bayrou tries to round up will fulfil the expectations for those who will vote for the 'alternative'.