French Presidential Debate: Much Ado About Nothing

From time to time, there is such a build-up to a mid-week football match, that you cannot wait for the Wednesday night. The build-up to this week’s French presidential debate promised a night of high drama, philosophical insights and antipodal ideologies. Instead, I was forced to watch the debate on my iPad, my son having “hijacked” the television for his play-station, and the match turned out to be a boring goalless draw. I was always under the impression that French politics was “in the premier league”, when compared to other countries, but nothing could be further from the truth. The French people, suffering from a deep, divisive, and chronic existential crisis, have been severely let down by their political system. Instead of undergoing a transcendental change to meet the challenge, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron both showed their limits and unsuitability for the presidential vacancy. Le Pen turned up with a pile of notes and folders, and an empty rhetoric. She did have lots of possession, trying frantically to take charge of the debate, but failed dismally in front of goal.  Macron turned up empty-handed and, defending his lead in the polls with 10 men behind the ball, in true catenaccio style, that was that. Even the referees had a bad night, as both presenters had absolutely no control over the match and could not direct the proceedings. In the end, it was no surprise that both candidates ended up playing out a dire scoreless draw, relegating both parties to the depths of the political lower leagues. The Fifth Republic, a mere 3 weeks younger than I am, deserves much better. And so do I.

Marine Le Pen showed us why she won’t win next Sunday’s vote, unless the French vote recklessly or don’t turn up at all. Emmanuel Macron showed us why he will be the winner, “faute de mieux” (for lack of anything better). For all their economic and social problems over the past 50 years, the French have been blessed with heads of state who were worthy of the office that they aspired to. The ghosts of presidencies gone-by, roam the television studios, in dismay at seeing how low the intellectual level of French political debate has fallen. Say what you want about their political visions, but Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, François Mitterand and even Jacques Chirac, were truly great French presidents. Emmanuel Macron might be, but only because he is young, and has time to mature. Given the fact that the Front National is so intellectually shallow, he may even get a second chance, as long as France begins an economic and social rehab programme successfully, under his leadership. These past presidents, for all their political differences, had one thing in common. It was their ability to be “rassembleurs”, in the sense of being “coalition builders”. Their intellectual capabilities enabled them to reach out to a much wider electorate than their core support, in both the National Assembly and at local level. To give him credit where it is due, Emmanuel Macron does try his best to create a cross-party sense of belonging. It may be just his age that doesn’t give him that reassuring and impressive wisdom that the French so desperately need from their president. But, I do feel, that with a little bit of luck and a lot of good fortune, he might be OK in the Elysée Palace after all, for a man so young. Even Le Pen told him sarcastically, “your policies look a lot older than you do”. Maybe the opposite can be said of her.

If this presidential election were decided on sarcasm and vociferous critique, Marine Le Pen would have won hands down. She came into the debate extremely well prepared for razor sharp attacks and, ironically, ended up talking more about Macron than about herself and her policies. She attacked straight from the kick-off, with sarcastic comments about Macron having “chums” in  big business, and inviting them for drinks at “La Rotonde”.  Well, I did warn you that she would use his night-out against him, and she did – not once, but twice. She wanted to reach out to the people of France who feel, justifiably, left behind by the system. She summoned a France full of hate for the “elite” and anger concerning the stagnating economy and the effects of religious fundamentalism. But her constant sarcasm and destructive approach to Macron’s proposals were out of place in a political, economic and social landscape, where ordinary working people need clear, simple and honest explanations of what is wrong, and how it can be fixed. Emmanuel Macron did his best to explain his vision for taking France out of its economic sluggishness, but was constantly under the attack of an opponent who would not listen, let alone debate. Even concerning terrorism, where Le Pen and Macron do have some convergences, she could not hold back her cynicism and destructiveness. Instead of a detailed exchange of visions on such an important issue, she accused Macron of “complacency towards Islamic fundamentalists” by accepting the support of the Union of Islamic organisations of France (UOIF), during the election campaign. The UOIF has given clear advice to its members to vote for Macron, but only in the optic of opposing the policies of the extreme-right. The apparent technicalities of the ongoing feud between Le Pen and Macron obscured the true importance of the debate on integration and terrorism that was supposed to take place. Both candidates ignored the fact that the 15 million or so viewers were no experts in counter-terrorism procedures, and were probably feeling completely left out of the debate.

Marine Le Pen’s obsession with undermining the policies of previous governments, hindered her appraisal of what when wrong in the past. Her reasons for wanting to leave the Euro were incoherent to say the least. She seemed to advocate the concomitant use of the Euro and the Franc, and was not clear at all on why France should leave the Euro. On the EU, she praised the UK’s economy for having done so well since the Brexit vote, and Macron didn’t even bother pointing out that the UK hadn’t actually left yet. Maybe his comments weren’t really necessary, since Le Pen was making enough mistakes by herself, that were obvious for everyone to see. Added to her hatred of the Euro and the EU, we can now add Germanophobia as one of her many dislikes.

France will be governed by a woman, if it’s not me, it will be Merkel – Marine Le Pen

It’s quite a catch-phrase, I must admit – only, Le Pen will most probably not be elected, and Merkel must face elections of her own. The phrase will probably be considered as one of the highlights of the whole debate, underscoring the dire intellectual level of the whole proceedings.

In acting the way she did, Marine Le Pen wanted to emulate Donald Trump who publicly humiliated Hilary Clinton on American television. This is really not the way that politics should be run. The Voltairian vision of free speech and thought is of paramount importance for the safeguard of our fragile democracies.

The role of the two presenters must also not be underestimated. They were completely absent from the debate for the first hour or so, and overwhelmed in the second. Of course, this was supposed to be a head-to-head between two diametrically opposing visions of France, but it was the journalists’responsibility to ensure a dignified and coherent debate. They both failed miserably in their duties. In the same way that France has had great presidents, French television has been blessed with great presenters, among whom Yves Mourousi  and Patrice Duhamel were amongst the very best. They probably influenced the result of the 1981 presidential election, that saw the socialist François Mitterand beat the outgoing president Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The journalists had the audacity to ask the outgoing president if he had actually given back a set of diamonds that he had received from the former Central African dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa. What would they have said to Marine Le Pen about her Russian bank loans?

The format of the presidential debate, that has always taken place after the first round of voting, has not changed for the last 40 years. The rise of demagogues like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen is more than a cry for change, it is a mandate for change. It is improbable that undecided voters who watched the presidential debate will feel any the wiser. They certainly cannot have been persuaded that Marine Le Pen has the intellectual prowess of a future president of France. The obsession of her party for denouncing  and destroying all that lies before it, has obscured the telling truth that, if the Front National were to significantly eradicate its provocations, it could become a very serious threat to the centrists. It is a pity from Marine Le Pen’s perspective, that she’d rather hear the sound of her voice than listen to the meaning of her words.

Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder. – Rumi