A month before the French go to the polls, François Bayrou's greatest asset seems to be who he's not. As voters have wearied of the in-your-face UMP party candidate Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialists' Ségolène Royal, the self-styled centrist Bayrou has bounded up the charts. His poll numbers have quadrupled since January, and a survey last week predicted he'd come out even with Royal (at 23 percent) in the first-round ballot on April 22. If he makes it to the May 6 runoff—still a big "if"—current polls have him beating Sarkozy by 10 points.
Not bad for a race once considered a two-way heat. But Bayrou's surge has come with a cost: new scrutiny. The press and voters suddenly want to know just who this classics professor turned farmer-politician really is. And so far, the answers haven't been forthcoming. Bayrou avoids making many promises, saying they can't be kept. If elected, he says he'd make it unconstitutional to table a budget that would create a deficit. But he hasn't explained where spending cuts would come from.
His all-in approach is working. Although Bayrou has conservative credentials (he was twice Education minister in right-wing governments of the 1990s), he's recast himself as the man of the middle as his rivals neglect it. Both Royal and Sarkozy once had their sights on the center but have been distracted by their flanks in recent weeks. Back in January, when a poll showed that half the French were "worried" by Sarkozy's hard-line views, he started praising famous Socialists. Lately, however, he's been courting voters who backed the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Royal, similarly, tried to show herself an independent thinker during the Socialist primary last year. But lately she's steered left to appease the "elephants," as the veteran Socialist power brokers are known.
With the front runners sidetracked, it's been easier for Bayrou to pull in the vital center. His tiny UDF party has no elephants or extremes to please. His stated plan is to form a coalition government with anyone on the left or right who wants to join him in the middle. Given that 61 percent of French voters now say they trust neither the left nor the right, that's made Bayrou seem surprisingly fresh.
Which is slightly ironic, given that, unlike Sarkozy and Royal, this is his second run at the presidency (he scored 6.84 percent in 2002). But Sarkozy's held the spotlight for so long (he's been angling for the top job for years) that his campaign feels like a replay reel. And though Royal charmed the country when she grabbed her party's nomination in 2006, having to placate the old guard has dulled her appeal.
Bayrou, meanwhile, has tried to frame himself as a regular guy. "Me and my friends, we aren't the jet set," he says. "We're the tractor set." (Never mind that this farmer raises racehorses and is a best-selling author.) With his humble aw-shucks image, he's making up for what he lacks in charisma. A former stutterer, he's loath to attempt Sarkozy-style oratory. But that's part of the draw. "For us, he's authentic," says Christian Iscache, a UDF member from suburban Paris. "He started in rural France and he worked his way up."
Yet symbolism can only take him so far. When Bayrou seemed to have little chance of winning this election, the holes in his agenda were easy to ignore. Now even supporters are looking for more substance. At a mall in Rosny-sous-Bois, one backer gently pressed the candidate for help: "I'm confronted every day—people are asking for a little more detail on the ideas now."
But Bayrou still shies from particulars. "What people expect from a French president is a project, a vision," he told NEWSWEEK, "not programmatic details." "It's as if, on a ship, we were discussing life on the ship," he continued. "But [the] question ... is the ship's course, where we're going."
Exactly. And if he's going to win, Captain Bayrou has to start convincing France that he has an actual destination in mind.
With Christopher Dickey in Paris