Last night’s marathon debate between FrancoisHollande (PS) and ‘exiting president’ Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) was scheduled to last two hours. In fact the historic, one-match only confrontation began promptly at nine pm and ended near midnight. By that hour presumably some proportion of the millions of spectators had thrown in the towel, either because they had jobs to go to and kids to feed in the morning, or because of headaches brought on by hours of relentless, tense disagreement, accusations of lying (vs Hollande, whose grasp of numbers was slippery) and attacks on integrity (vs Sarkozy, for the company he’s kept). Not to mention the distinctive style of French debaters, viz. everyone simultaneously screaming their heads off at each other (and off the moderators, too, if they try to calm things down) so that the deafened listener can barely pick out a single word, and feels all the misery of a kid forgotten at the table when a family fight is raging.
The moderators were a young man and a young woman who both retained their pleasantly attentive smiles no matter what. The young man, like the two candidates, wore a black suit and sombre blackish tie. In contrast, the blonde young woman wore scads of peacock make-up, like the merry widow at a funeral.
Germany sat in as practically a third participant in the debate, with Hollande alternately using that country’s favorable growth as a stick for beating the exiting president, while insisting on the need to defy Germany’s Europe position and renege on recent hard-won agreements in order to ease the fiscal reins and invest more in struggling economies.
This viewer’s impression? Hollande was mindful of the need to appear ‘Presidential’, whatever that entails. Ending with a long incantation of ‘Moi je, moi je, moi je’s in the conditionnel? More practically, he got a jump on his possible future job by back-tracking in advance on some thorny issues, notably mass nuclear plant shut-downs and some promised social benefits which ‘we might not be able to afford right away.’ Fact is, many PS voters are counting on more such reality-driven modifications. For his part, Sarkozy defended his record through ‘the crisis’ with a Clinton-like command of data and details. Regarding a number of programs proposed by Hollande, the president was able to point out with wry satisfaction that they already exist. But he’s not campaigning on a platform of major change. And ‘change’ is the magic ingredient. An election without extravagant promises of change would be like a birthday party without presents..
Of course, this morning both PS and UMP are claiming their guy won the debate.
Can Sarko still snatch victory from the jaws of a votership scared of globalization and the Greek abyss, eager for a siren song, no matter how internally disharmonious and contradictory, and fed up with the President’s occasionally crass personal style? Everyone agrees that his slim thread of hope lies with the 18.5% who voted for Marine le Pen’s Front National in round one. The arithmetic exists for a conservative majority. Le Pen, however, who loathes the UMP and dreams of replacing it with her ‘FN-lite’ (less overtly racist, implacably anti-Euro) has again today exhorted her followers to ‘vote white’. Ahem, no reference to ethnicity, she merely means to cast an empty ballot.
The smart money is on Hollande, of course. The general, deeply rooted lack of passion for this bland individual who has never held major office nor worked for any employer but the government all his life was temporarily alleviated by Tuesday’s labor day parade, an all-day moveable feast sponsored by the trade unions that featured red flags, banners, smoke-bombs and free-flowing beer, the Internationale blasted by amps, and other accoutrements of old-style class warfare. Only 8% of French workers are unionized, and those are mostly state workers with security and generous pensions. But everyone loves the parade. In the symbolic historical shorthand of the nation, marching–and voting–on the left equals anti-Vichy virtue, la resistance, love for all mankind, tearing down the Bastille, etc. Whereas a person leaning to the right is presumably a pawn of the rich, or a rich tax-dodger herself, not to mention a crypto-fascist. So who would admit to that? No wonder the pollsters grossly underestimated le Pen’s score in round one. People lied.
In round two, there’s no such wild card in play.