I just finished watching, live from France, the presidential debate between the Socialist Segolene Royal and the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy (via TV5Monde, the international francophone channel).
It ran incredibly long — two hours and 40 minutes — which was longer than planned. This was in large measure due to the absolute inability of the two moderators — top-rated commercial TF1′s veteran nightly news presenter Patrick Poivre D’Arvor, for the conservative network owned by the huge Bouyges construction firm; and Arlette Chabot, news director of France 2 public TV, another TV veteran whom I’ve always found colorless and a lousy moderator — to impose order on the two loquacious candidates or to exact answers to the questions the moderators posed. Yes, “PPDA” (as he’s known) and Chabot, who presided over this exercise, were utterly useless. (One sardonic French commentator — the excellent Philippe Meyer, a well-known author and an editorialist for Europe 1 radio — said right after the debate that, as a journalist, he was so ashamed of the PPDA-Chabot performances as moderators that he wanted “to tear up my press card.”) As a result, international issues were, astonishingly, almost entirely ignored — this was a very Franco-French, navel-gazing exchange. Both candidates regurgitated their positions and formulas. Nothing new was heard.
Sarkozy was told by his counselors he had to moderate his aggressive, demagogic image; he did so to such an extent that at times he appeared to be on Xanax. Royal tried to de-stabilize Sarko with several attacks and by feigning anger at several points — rather obviously, too. It didn’t work — Sarko, whose nervous outbursts of inflammatory language are legendary, refused to be provoked. He appeared calm, serene, and very, very polite — as he needed to be, his counselors had told him, in debating a woman.
But while underdog Segolene’s attempts at attacking Sarko provided the (very) few lively moments in the endless debate, on the substance she really quite failed to distinguish herself from him sharply in policy terms, and many of her statements were the sort of vague generalities that have characterized her campaign. There was a lot of agreement on many questions between the duo. And, since all the opinion polls have consistently shown Sarko beating Sego for months in head-to-head match-ups, and since the first round of voting the latest polls have showed Sarko winning the runoff by anywhere from 4 to 6 points, it’s hard to see that this debate did the Socialist candidate enough good to give her a real chance of winning the election four days hence..
As the libertarian socialist philosopher and best-selling author Michel Onfray wrote on Monday in the scintillating, must-read “presidential blog” he’s been writing on the campaign for France’s largest newsweekly, the mildly-left Nouvel Observateur, an offering entitled “Royal is Sarkozy’s best weapon”:
“When the choice is between the right and the left, even if the left is pale, the choice is simple. But when one is offered a choice between the right and the center, which has been the new reality of this run-off, one can easily wish to leave this game to others and abstain from participating in this masquerade….” Onfray’s brutal judgement on Royal led him to announce he’ll cast a blank ballot. (Read the rest of his commentary by clicking here.)
Onfray’s diagnosis of the problem with Segolene Royal was confirmed, it seemed to me, by the TV debate. And the electoral math is against Royal. In the first round of voting on April 22, all of the left presidential candidates put together got just 36% — the lowest score for the left since 1969, which saw the election of conservative President Georges Pompidou. The hard-right parties, on the other hand, scored 45% (including the votes for the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and the nationalist immigrant-baiter Vicomte Philippe de Villiers). Most of the Le Pen and de Villiers votes will go to Sarko, while it is unclear whether all of the votes of the Communists, Greens, independent anti-globalization candidate Jose Bove, and the three Trotskyite parties will in fact all go to Segolene and her Blairite, centrist-pandering political posture.
But even if they did, and even if the Socialist candidate could get half of the 18.5% of first-round votes cast for the so-called official centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou — whose electorate she’s been sucking up to for the last two weeks — she’d still wind up significantly short. And a majority of Bayrou’s voters are essentially moderate conservatives — Bayrou, after all, had participated in conservative governments led by Jacques Chirac on and off for years — and so are unlikely to vote for a Socialist.
(Bayrou has indicated he will probably make some sort of indication of whom he’s voting for on Thursday — but right after the first round, he refused to endorse either of the two remaining runoff candidates. And it’s quite possible Bayrou — who, since his unexpectely strong, first-round showing, has said he will launch a new centrist political party, the Parti Democrate — will still refuse to back either Nicolas Sarkozy or Segolene Royal. That’s the posture indicated after the debate by Bayrou’s close political associate, Jean-Marie Cavada. Bayrou’s current UDF party now has only 29 members of parliament, nearly all of whom were elected with support from Sarkozy’s UMP party — and 22 of those so-called “centrist” deputies have already endorsed Sarko. Were Bayrou to say he’s voting for Royal, it would seriously jeopardize those deputies’ re-election in the legislative elections this summer and, perhaps, result in more permanent defections by these pols from the Bayrou-led UDF to the Sarkozy-led UMP, further whittling away Bayrou’s meager parliamentary representation.)
To sum up, it doesn’t seem to me that this debate will change much in the final outcome — and Sarkozy remains the odds-on favorite to be elected president of France on Sunday. More’s the pity — because, as I’ve previously written on this blog, the liberticide, immigrant-baiting, demagogic corporate lacky Sarkozy — known in the French press as “Sarkozy l’americain” for his fervent pro-Americanism, Atlanticism and advocacy of a brand of aggressively free-market policies that resemble Bushonomics — is a very dangerous man.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared May 2, 2007.