Centrist also-ran presidential candidate François Bayrou announced late on Thursday that he will be voting for socialist nominee François Hollande in the election's second round on Sunday.
Some French columnists put this surprise about-face – for centrists traditionally throw their support rightward – down to political expediency rather than Bayrou's declared ideological objections to President Nicolas Sarkozy.
They argue that Bayrou is hoping – and scheming – that a defeat on Sunday for Sarkozy will breathe new life into his own faltering political party and enable it to re-establish itself as a part of the French political landscape.
Still, the MoDem leader’s positions on the economy and deficit reduction are much closer to those of the incumbent. “I do not support Hollande’s position economically,” Bayrou has said. “It is ill-suited to the country's situation, and even more so to the [economic] crisis, that will almost certainly last a long time.”
Sarkozy’s swing to the right
However, Bayrou argued that he has been given no choice but to back Hollande, due to the “violence” of Sarkozy’s efforts to attract voters from the far-right National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen scored a record-breaking 18% in the first round on April 22.
“Sarkozy has been too focused on wooing far-right voters," Bayrou said. “The line he has chosen is violent and in contradiction with our values, not just mine and the political movement I represent, but also those of [Charles de Gaulle] and the social, republican right.”
Bayrou blasted Sarkozy’s “obsession with immigration” and his “fixation with ‘re-establishing’ strong borders – as if they had disappeared and with them the national soul.”
And although his support falls short of an outright endorsement of the Socialist Party candidate, it will certainly help cement Hollande’s lead - currently between 5% and 6% – if enough of his supporters choose to follow suit.
Rebuilding the MoDem?
For some, Bayrou is playing a long game in the hope that a complete and outright rejection of Sarkozy’s government will revive his own party’s fortunes.
The MoDem candidate got 18% of the vote in the first round of the 2007 presidential election, only to see that number halved to 9% in 2012.
According to communist-backed daily "L’Humanité", Bayrou is hoping that a resounding defeat of Sarkozy could lead to the marginalisation of the president’s ruling UMP party and lead to a re-drawing of the French opposition following the “decapitation” of the UMP – a battleground that will be hotly contested by the far-right National Front.
The view is shared by Nicolas Demorand, the managing editor of leftist daily "Libération", who said that following the election, the French Right was “going to have to take a long hard look at itself” – adding that Bayrou had put himself in a position of strength by making the “honourable” choice to support Hollande.
Left-leaning weekly "Nouvel Observateur", however, was more cynical, saying Bayrou was banking on Hollande’s economic policies failing in the face of the ongoing financial crisis.
Such a failure would vindicate his economic strategy, making Bayrou and his party the only viable alternative for France’s fiscally conservative voters.
“There is absolutely no question of Bayrou wanting to join in a socialist-led government,” wrote columnist Hervé Algalarrondo. “He is convinced that the crisis is far from over and that the Left will very quickly run into financial trouble. And when Hollande is forced to re-draw his economic policies, Bayrou views himself as being the only person able to provide the answers.”