Live in France long enough and there is a phrase you will come to recognise as one of the nation’s favourites: “Oui, mais le problème c’est que”. Upon hearing it find something comfortable to repose in for solutions and proposals generally owe existence to an insatiable need to discuss and intellectualise at a length and in ways not imaginable to other cultures. Implementation, a frequently unexpected by-product of the practice, transforms intellectualisation into something called back-biting.

These are traits doubtless on extravagant display at UMP (M. Sarkozy) and Socialist (Mme. Royale) headquarters just now because a third candidate, centrist M. Bayrou of the UDF, is storming the election party.

Exhibit A: Poll trends for French voter intentions in the 1st Presidential round

Image from today's Wall Street Journal

For students of probability the betting is fascinating. Most odds are aimed at who ultimately will become president. However, there are two rounds of voting: round one separates the top two candidates; and round two is a straight runoff between them. A ton of money has already been laid on the assumption that M. Sarkozy, the ultimate odds-on favourite, will face Mme. Royale in the runoff. Now comes the finding that should rising star M. Bayrou make the cut he will beat M. Sarkozy comfortably as the left theoretically flounces his way post-Royale exit.

Yet Bayrou’s UDP has many links to Sarkozy’s UMP including an election pact at the last legislative elections not to compete and split the vote in certain constituencies. This tactic kept Socialists out but implies that a competing right and centre splits its vote in the first presidential round (and the trend of the graph appears to support the assertion). That would favour passage to round two for Mme. Royale. But who would be her competition?

Mme. Royale's policy pronouncements, such as they are, tend to involve throwing a government cheque at something. With public debt at 66% of GDP this would be a neat trick to pull off. M. Sarkozy, on the other hand, is pretty much all things to all people. This might be pragmatism; or, as was possible to conclude from his efforts last night here on national television, it might be perceived by voters as venal desperation to collect votes.

Then there is married at 22 (or thereabouts) with a flock of children, gentleman-farmer type Bayrou portraying himself as a centrist. Unafraid to borrow (steal) the best (voter appealing) ideas from left and right he has a set of concrete proposals that tap a broad seam of the electorate.

With up to 40% of poll respondents pleading “undecided” all results are possible. But that money on M. Sarkozy should definitely not be rated odds-on. The first round is far from done and dusted.

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