TIME: Recent polls are now putting you tied for second place in the presidential race, with 23% of the vote. Can you keep it up?
Bayrou: Clearly there's a very strong movement of opinion in France. Millions of people want out of the perpetual confrontation between the PS [Socialist Party] and the UMP [Union for a Popular Movement] between the left and the right. For the last 25 years, there hasn't been a single [parliamentary] election in which the incumbent majority has been confirmed in power. People now want a way to change without destroying, but by constructing.
TIME: Are you running a campaign against the French elite?
Bayrou: Elite is a big word. If we're talking about the true elite, then I'm with them. But in France for a long time there's been an absence of real democracy. The institutions are locked up, and French people of the middle and lower classes really resent it.
TIME: What role does it play in your current success that you're not a Parisian?
Bayrou: A big role, in my opinion. I have an atypical career. I come from far away, from the Pyrenees, from a social class of peasants and workers that usually doesn't have access to power. But I do know Paris politics very well, and it's because I know it that I can criticize it and contradict it.
TIME: Do you see an important divide between Paris and the rest of France?
Bayrou: It's not just Paris and the rest of France; lots of people in the banlieues [suburbs] even very close to Paris feel the same frustration, and are showing the same confidence in me.
TIME: Simone Veil, one of your former party colleagues who now supports Nicolas Sarkozy, has said that you're only out for yourself. What is your motivation for running for President?
Bayrou: I want to change French politics. I want a new deal. And obviously everyone who is in on the old deal will defend it tooth and nail. They've had all the posts, all the responsibilities for the last 25 years, and they'll create a sacred union to defend their place. If I'm not wrong, the French people will oppose them.
TIME: But how would it work for you to become president when your small party (the Union for French Democracy, UDF) can never muster a majority in parliament?
Bayrou: But who has a majority? The people will decide who's in the next parliament [in elections] at the beginning of June. If the French beat back the PS and the UMP [in the final May 6 vote for president], as I think they want to, I promise you that they won't grant those partisans a majority in June. They'll vote for all those who want to participate in the new gathering of forces I'm proposing.
TIME: But these parties are powerful institutions, and they're not going to just wither away.
Bayrou: They're like big trees that have become rotten inside. All it takes is a good breeze to make them fall.
TIME: Maybe so, but the concept of left vs. right has determined the politics of France and most other democracies since the French Revolution.
Bayrou: I'm not saying we abandon left and right, just that everyone left, right and center-has to work together. Each takes its place in working to redress the problems that France faces today. My majority will be a large one, with the center as its axis.
TIME: You've said that a defining feature of France is to resist the "American model". What does that mean for you?
Bayrou: For decades, America has been a dream for many French people. But gradually, with the Iraq war being the most recent stage, people have got the impression that the American dream was drying up. American society now seems founded on the laws of the rich and the influential, and that's something French people would never tolerate.
TIME: In your book you suggest that the political elite has often looked down on you.
Bayrou: I'm not alone. Tens of millions of French resent that up-and-down look they get from the elite. We have to show them that the people who look at them that way are not the voice of France.