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Pledging to unite, from outside

Times Staff Writer

Hoarse but content, presidential candidate Francois Bayrou savored a plastic cup of red wine in the cramped seat of a noisy turboprop plane headed back to Paris.

Bayrou was still relishing the response he had gotten at an evening campaign rally in this city in Brittany, where a youthful crowd of about 7,000 heard him denounce outmoded political machines and promise to be a president who unites forces across the ideological divide.

“I think France has changed a lot and that they want a president who understands them and soothes them,” he said during an interview aboard the plane last week. “This movement represents hope for them. There are moments when people need the negative and moments when they need the positive.... I believe they need the positive.”

This farmer-turned-intellectual-turned politician has shaken up French politics. Blending the roles of maverick reformist and calm centrist, during the last two months he soared 15 points in polls and became a surprise contender in the first-round election April 22.

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Bayrou is fighting a three-way battle with Segolene Royal of the opposition Socialists and front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy of the ruling center-right coalition, the Union for a Popular Movement. Though Bayrou has faded a bit from his recent peak, when he pulled almost even with Royal for second place, the polls show him beating either candidate head-to-head in the May 6 runoff -- if he can make it that far.

Making an imprint

Detractors grumble that a former government minister and 21-year veteran of the National Assembly has no business portraying himself as an outsider. And pollsters suggest that Bayrou’s support is softer than the intended vote for other contenders. But with just more than two weeks left in a high-stakes race that will bring generational change to the presidency, he seems likely to make an imprint. Even if he does not reach the runoff, a strong showing could make his endorsement of another candidate decisive.

Disenchanted voters in provincial outposts such as Rennes embrace Bayrou, 55, as a man rooted in rural, traditional values. He divides his time between Paris and his home in a village in the Pyrenees where his wife and six children still live. He takes pride in having worked with his hands rather than studying at elite Parisian graduate schools like Royal and other leaders did.

And he has turned out to be surprisingly popular in tense, traditionally leftist slums with large populations of Arab and African origin. The devout Roman Catholic presents himself to Muslim communities as a “fellow believer” and condemns anti-immigrant politics. He described how his 18-year-old son was moved to tears by the warm reception his father got last month in Saint-Denis, a tough suburb north of Paris that was hit hard by the riots that shocked France in 2005.

“He told me, ‘If they hadn’t liked you there, I would have been ashamed,’ ” Bayrou said. “For young people of French origin, despite what Sarkozy sees, and Royal also, a dislike of discrimination has been instilled in their lives and they can’t stand it any more than their buddies in the slums do. And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about the evolution of France.”

Bayrou ran for president in 2002 but got less than 7% among an ideological menagerie of protest and outsider candidates. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the grizzled boss of the far-right National Front, stunned the nation by beating the Socialists in the first round. He lost the runoff to incumbent President Jacques Chirac.

Although Le Pen is running again in a field crowded with minor candidates, some of the anti-system energy has coalesced behind Bayrou, who is a less combative and more reassuring figure. His small centrist party, the Union for French Democracy, favors a strong European Union and close transatlantic ties. But like most French politicians, Bayrou lost faith in the Bush administration because of the war in Iraq.

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“I am traditionally a friend of the United States ... but the Bush administration has driven me to despair,” he said. Bayrou hopes the next U.S. president will be “a Clintonian -- either a centrist Republican or a centrist Democrat.”

Rustic roots

The down-to-earth, rugged-looking Bayrou comes from the Bearn region, a green, mountainous area near the Spanish border where the local dialect resembles the Catalan language. His father died in an agricultural accident when Bayrou was young. After working on the family farm, Bayrou studied in Bordeaux, became a professor of classics and entered politics. For years he was an ally of Chirac’s center-right coalition, serving as minister of education from 1993 to 1997.

But he always maintained a degree of independence. That helped him steer clear of corruption scandals that plague the big parties, he says. Despite his free-market, conservative background, he has shifted to the left: He identifies with leaders such as Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, a fellow Catholic and architect of a center-left coalition. Bayrou has made inroads particularly among moderate leftists who think Royal lacks skill and experience.

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The Bayrou campaign operation seems effective, if small and relaxed. Last week he climbed aboard a no-frills, 19-seat Beechcraft 1900 for the trip from Paris to Brittany. He was accompanied by film actor Vincent Lindon, who has a wisecracking, regular-guy style on and off screen and is a fervent Bayrou fan. The entourage also included a bodyguard, a few aides and party leaders, and several journalists.

“It’s been the same team for years,” Bayrou said. “It’s a small team, but very professional.... So nothing has changed. Except that instead of halls for 1,000 people, now we get halls for 5,000.”

The first stop was a vocational academy in coastal Saint-Brieuc. A throng of local journalists and supporters pursued Bayrou on a tour of classrooms where bakers, butchers and mechanics are trained. As he greeted students working on a Renault sedan, a reporter asked whether they repaired tractors -- a joking allusion to an iconic television image that shows Bayrou driving a tractor. Deadpan, Bayrou responded: “Very funny.”

The group then flew to Rennes, the provincial capital, where Bayrou accused entrenched leftist and rightist interests of teaming to fend him off.

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“They have decided that no one else can make it,” he said during the rally. “They do have a common program; they want to preserve their monopoly. So we will be treated to the most surprising ballet routines you can imagine.”

Appearing at the rally was Francois Goulard, one of two rightist Cabinet ministers who have broken ranks to endorse him. Bayrou cites the defections as part of his vision of a unity government that would transcend party lines. But opponents call it a recipe for gridlock because his party has little chance of winning a legislative majority.

Pragmatism and risk

Bayrou’s platform is pragmatic and simple. He wants to pour resources into education, one of the few sectors in which he says this heavily indebted nation must spend more. He proposes a U.S.-style small-business administration to overcome cultural and bureaucratic obstacles to entrepreneurship. He plans to fight unemployment by allowing every company to hire two workers without having to pay the usual stifling labor taxes for the first five years.

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But he has staked out risky turf in a debate about issues smoldering from the riots: crime, immigration, Islam and French identity. Although fear of new riots persists -- youth gangs battled police last week in the Gare du Nord train station in the heart of Paris -- he downplays the threat. Similarly, he says the problem of Islamic radicalism in France has been exaggerated.

Sarkozy, who became popular as France’s top law enforcement official, cultivates a tougher tone that could lure voters away from the far right. Not long after Sarkozy proposed a separate ministry of immigration and national identity, Royal made a patriotic splash last week by calling for greater prominence for the French flag and national anthem -- symbols that the Socialist old guard always kept at a distance.

Bayrou dismisses it all as nationalistic excess.

In Rennes, he appealed for leniency for a group of illegal immigrants from Mali who are in danger of being deported after using false documents to get jobs at a slaughterhouse here.

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“Misery makes men and women do things that are not always in keeping with regulations,” he said.

Sipping his wine in the back of the plane hours later, Bayrou predicted that his message would strike a chord in immigrant areas, where voter registration has increased since the unrest, and beyond.

“You can’t incite the population against the slums,” he said. “The slums are the place in French society with the most people who want to start their own business. You can’t imagine to what extent people there talk to me about ‘liberty, equality and fraternity.’ ... They want to have trust in the president. And the president must say to the French: We are going to live together.”

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rotella@latimes.com


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