Like Anne Frank, France is a little bundle of contradictions. Thus on the one hand, on Sunday night one could see a black turtle-necked Olivier Besancenot, the 33-year-old leader of the League Communist Revolutionaire, sitting around the roundtable with the mainstream political suits on TF1 television’s coverage of the municipal election returns, something one would never see in the United States, where even the Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was sometimes excluded from televised debates and other candidates are routinely excluded because they haven’t collected enough money. On the other hand, if the French understand political extremes, they don’t know quite what to do with the so-called Center.
When the Bearnais François Bayrou claimed this mantle in last year’s presidential election, despite initial enthusiasm he was eventually shouted down by politicians from the Right and the Left who easily convinced the public that he was ‘mou,’ or soft — neither on the Left nor the Right, therefore wishy-washy. Yet in fact, if one studied his positions, what Bayrou offered and offers is not mushyness but freedom from ideology; rather than consult an ideological compas before rendering an opinion, he looks at the situation based on the facts. Thus, when youths rioted at the Gare du Nord after police tried to arrest a man without papers, the Right-wing candidate instinctively blamed the youths, the Socialist candidate hesitated for fear of being labeled soft on crime, and only Bayrou talked common sense: “This is what happens when young people don’t trust the police.”
More recently, the number one issue in France these days is the diminished pouvoir d’achat or purchase power. (Milk at my local grocery store has gone from 63 cents a liter to 96 in seven months.) After candidate Nicolas Sarkozy promised to be the president of the pouvoir d’achat, President Nicolas Sarkozy flippantly announced, “The cash box is empty — what do you expect me to do?” Worse, his own motto in campaigning for the effective reversal of the 35-hour-work week in the form of supplemental hours — ‘travail plus pour gagne plus’ or work more to earn more — has effectively been subverted by his finance minister to ‘if prices are up, you just need to work more.’ Enter Mr. Bayrou, who revealed how direly existential the situation is when, grimacing as a t.v. interviewer asked him about the pouvoir d’achat, he corrected the interviewer, “It’s not really the pouvoir d’achat, it’s the fin de mois,’ meaning there are households who arrive at the end of the month unable to pay their bills.
Now the commentators are confused because in the wake of Sunday’s elections and ahead of this Sunday’s final round, Bayrou’s Modem party is allying itself with the Right in some towns, the Left in others, and no one in still others, including Pau, where Bayrou, who finished second to the Socialist candidate in the first round, has refused to combine forces with the third place right-wing UMP for the final. Analyzing this approach in short-hand, one commentator said Bayrou is either Professor Tournesol or a visionary. Tournesol — English-speakers know him as Professor Calculus — is of course the hard of hearing character from the Tintin series. I would reverse the analogy.