Mary Dejevsky: The French election is not a two-horse race

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So they're off, and it's Sarko leading Sego by a length and extending his advantage, despite Sego's frantic efforts to make up lost ground. On this side of La Manche, these are the only two runners we can spy through our binoculars. And we are urging on Sarko as though there were no tomorrow. Much though we like the idea of France with a Presidente, we just prefer to back a winner - and Sarko's appetite for the race suggests he would be our kind of guy. Why hesitate, when the odds are so unambiguously in Sarko's favour?

Well, maybe the race is already as good as over, and maybe Sarko will strut nonchalantly into the Elysee, with Sego limping away into obscurity. But is it really wise to bet on the outcome of a democratic election two months in advance, still less a French election? Remember what happened five years ago? Jacques Chirac owes his second term to the Socialist voters who took the first round for granted and the far-right voters who seized their opportunity. A two-round election produces such anomalies. It could do so again.

We British think we know the French so well, yet all too often our cross-Channel telescope affords only a partial view, and reflects back images coloured by our own wishful thinking. The risk is that this will happen again.

The first mistake would be to write off Ségolène Royal as a no-hoper. France votes for a president on personality and style as much as policies. Mme Royal surmounted opposition in her party to win the nomination with ease. She is a fighter with charm. The 100-point "Presidential Pact" that she presented at her inaugural rally 10 days ago may look alarmingly "old Labour", with state subsidies and pay guarantees liberally scattered. She fell out with her economic adviser over the costings.

But Mme Royal knows her constituency. France remains more attached to this sort of thing than we British like to believe. She needs to anchor traditional Socialist voters before she can start to court others. Inside her party she was seen as the "Blairite" candidate, and used some of his free-market language to claim the nomination. In the country at large, though, she needs the leftist vote, too. If this election is a contest for the centre ground, we must realise that the French political centre is further to the left than it is in Britain.

We are also making the assumption that Nicolas Sarkozy does not stumble. His association with so-called Anglo-Saxon - i.e. American and British ways of doing things - may bring him adulation among the young French professionals of London, but it does not always cast the same spell at home. His position as interior minister also carries risks: it may afford him extra media coverage, but one flare-up in the banlieues and he could be lamed.

Let us grant, though, that Mme Royal cannot catch M Sarkozy, who has nimbly negotiated all the obstacles he has so far encountered. Rather than focusing our telescope on the winning post, we should turn it on the back of the field. For the French election is not, at least not yet, a two-horse race. Cantering along in third or fourth place (depending on the poll) is that old war horse, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front, who so shocked the genteel French bourgeoisie with his late surge in 2002. Voters tempted by the far right tend to be more reticent than others in divulging their intentions to pollsters, so M Le Pen's support may well be more.

My sense, though, is that France will not allow M Le Pen another first-round surprise. A flood of new voter registrations suggests that young and old alike are taking their responsibilities more seriously. And there is a dark horse coming up on the outside, who is now neck and neck with M Le Pen.

At 55, François Bayrou has long been the also-ran of French politics; so familiar is his face that it is almost an electoral fixture, devoid of political meaning. For several weeks he has been enjoying a quiet resurgence. Leader of the centre-right UDF (Union for French Democracy), a former education minister in the Balladur and Juppe governments and a critic of the gap between France's political elite and the rest, M Bayrou lacks the showy confidence of the two favourites. He is the natural choice of voters who fear the Anglo-Saxon leanings of Sarko, who find Sego too Socialist (and who cannot see a woman in the Elysee).

It still looks like Sarko; it could still be Sego, but don't write off Bayrou. Were he to make it to the second round, he would have a chance. And we British would have to get used to a President who was elected because he was seen as the most French of the candidates - a second-tier Jacques Chirac, without the sleaze, and without the panache.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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