Full text of “French voters discover the third way”, an article by Henry Samuel published on the 19th March by The Daily Telegraph :

François Bayrou wears the bemused smile of a man still coming to terms with the fact that he now stands a fair chance of being elected president of France next month. “I’m a man coming from a family of farmers and I have my feet on the ground; I’m not dreaming,” the centrist contender from the Union for French Democracy told The Daily Telegraph in Tarbes, on his home soil in the Pyrenees. An also-ran before Christmas, the mild mannered 55-year-old is now considered the “third man” in the electoral race, just behind second-placed Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal and current favourite, Nicolas Sarkozy, backed by the ruling Right-wing UMP party. Lurking in fourth is the far-Right National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“I am not, how do you say Babette?” turning to his wife with whom he has six children, “drunk on polls and media and all that, but I am proud of the support of millions of people who want to change things and want to force change. It is the battle of my life”.

“Le Béarnais” as the French media call the Christian Democrat contender, had just given a two-hour speech to a crowd of around 2,000 gathered in a hastily erected marquee outside the town hall, in which there was insufficient room.

An unwilling potential first lady, Elisabeth Bayrou, had stepped blushing on to the stage in jeans for her first campaign appearance. “I have no interest in politics. I come when I’m told to,” she said. The couple sat together after a marathon week apart that has taken Mr Bayrou from troubled Parisian banlieues, where riots flared two years ago, to within 25 miles of his home town in Bordères, where he rears racehorses.

This town and country mix sums up perfectly the appeal of Mr Bayrou, who plays on his rural roots while referring to his academic credentials and past experience as a Cabinet minister: in his recently-released book, Projet d’Espoir (Project of Hope), he sums up his love of tractors by quoting the French poet Lamartine.

His supporters are fond of transforming the French expression “the mayonnaise will thicken” to “le Béarnais prendra”, a metaphor suggesting that the nationwide surge of support for his candidacy in recent weeks will not curdle. Two polls last week suggested he may be losing ground, but a third last Friday showed that he was level with Miss Royal.

But the question is, has he peaked? Mr Bayrou’s call for Right and Left to join hands in a German-style government of unity has captured the French imagination, but could yet founder on concerns that his small party will not command a majority in June’s parliamentary elections. His rivals claim the resulting cohabitation of Right and Left will paralyse the government and have ruled out any alliance.

He brushed this aside: “A new political method and landscape will emerge and a new way to work together as opposed to one against another. The French will send the Left and Right back to the drawing board. I will govern by bringing together new, competent people representing the entire country and believe me, there will be lots willing to take up the call. I have no doubt that the Socialists will respond.” A poll released last week showed that 65 per cent of French welcomed the idea.

He wants to bolster an “impotent” parliament which is “no longer representative of the country” by ensuring all major policy decisions are debated in full and by adding a dose of proportional representation.

Even if this opens the door to extremist deputies, he argues, they are better fought face to face. One Sarkozy aide recently claimed that such a plan would lead to Italian-style paralysis, at a time when France required a Churchill, not a Prodi.

“Perhaps he should learn his history better and not muddle up periods. I am a great admirer of Churchill and, by the way, a friend of Romano Prodi, even if his political set up is not exactly mine. But such attacks are ridiculous.”

Could France then benefit from a Margaret Thatcher? “I think that France has its own project for society and that this project cannot be lifted from those of another [country]. In France we should not try and copy any other political model whatsoever. We have our own project and our own values. For example, France is a country that loves unity and needs to live in unity – British society needs this a bit less. These are differences. We assume our differences.

“But I love the United Kingdom, I love English people. It is a civilisation not only a society. It is a great society and you are such fun.”

Mr Bayrou insisted that the strike-prone French are no more resistant to change than the British, so long as long as it is well explained and discussed. A fervent federalist, he claims that the real reason the French voted No in a referendum on the European constitution was that the text was unreadable, and that a new, shorter one would pass. He wants to drive “peaceful change” through “alliance” rather than “rupture” – a word associated with the more radical Mr Sarkozy.

He had mixed feelings about Tony Blair: “I appreciated him very much in the first years in office, I recognise the merits of a third way, also in the style of Bill Clinton. But I had great differences with his position over the Iraq war, which I imagine he himself sometimes regrets.”

Overall, he feels closest to the Liberal Democrats, “many of whom are my friends”.

And yet they have never managed to get into power.

“Well, it is in this way that France can show itself to be a pioneering country. We are going to show that it is perfectly possible to build a third way, and that we are not always obliged to be prisoners of two parties who have the monopoly of power.”

In what ways would his presidency differ from that of Jacques Chirac, widely seen in Britain as a republican monarch?

“It was not just Jacques Chirac; every president in the last 25 years behaved as a republican monarch and this will change because I am a man of democratic behaviour. I want to be simple in my life and respect citizens,” said Mr Bayrou, who pledged symbolically to cut expenditure at the Elysée palace by 20 per cent in his first year in office. “I want a republic which respects the rules that parents teach to their children. It’s as simple as that.”

What of the general view in Britain that the man best-placed to really bring about change in France and drag it into the 21st century is Nicolas Sarkozy? “They are mistaken and they will have a chance to find out why very soon.”

Mr Bayrou was twice an education minister in Right-wing governments, but has rebranded himself as somehow “outside” a system which the French are clearly unhappy with.

As an orator, Mr Bayrou lacks the electric charisma of Mr Sarkozy, but scores points with his clear, down-to-earth style somewhere between a teacher and “père de famille”.

Full text of “French voters discover the third way”, an article by Henry Samuel published on the 19th March by The Daily Telegraph.