Friday, May 04, 2007

Royale vs Sarkozy...the big TV debate

The two finalist in the French presidential campaign, Segolene Royale (leftist) and Nicolas Sarkozy (rightist) participated in a two and a half hour debate late Wednesday night. The format was basically just the two of them sitting across from each other going back and forth while two moderators sat nearby for the purpose of proposing general themes and managing the time spent on each one.
The themes were nearly all domestic...foreign policy really doesn't weigh heavily in this campaign except insofar as it impacts domestic issues like jobs and immigration.
Another interesting feature was the clocks displayed beneath the two candidates which kept a real time record of how much air time each candidate had used. Apparently if there is a discrepancy of time at the end, the candidate who's been shorted may use that time at the end without interruption. As it turned out both candidates came right with just about identical amounts of time spent...75 minutes each.
The format allowed each candidate to address the other directly and even to pose questions to the other. They went back and forth, interrupting each other, challenging each other...interesting format. There was speculation that Sarkozy, who's reputed to be something of a pit bull in temperament, might have trouble keeping his cool if he was directly called to the carpet by Royale who projects a very French combination of maternal concern a cool, telegenic smile...whether there is substance behind that smile is a question that is sometimes debated here. She has presumably tried to move her socialist party towards the center and been only marginally successful in wooing the hard line leftists to make common cause with her. Her resume is that of a provincial operator, she brings no real national experience to the table which causes some people to question her bonafides. She is the first woman to run for the office of president but the polls show that among women voters she is running behind Sarkozy.
After the debate was over the partisans for each side seemed pretty satisfied with their candidate's performance, so it remains to be seen whether any votes were swayed either way.
One thing that is obvious is that Sarkozy inspires passionate responses both positive and negative. Sarkozy seems to have courted this reaction to the extent that he has publiclly declared war on the era of 1968, calling it a low water mark of French history and culture. He seems anxious to engage in a cultural war of sorts, railing against moral relativism, laziness, the loss of respect for authority etc...One of his favorite words is "ordre" as in law and order. An unemployment rate of 40% among the young in some of these banlieues is being mixed with a record level of voter turnout to create a possible witches brew of expectation and disappointment.
I've noticed that even people who have nothing really in common with the socialists are wary or even fearful of Sarkozy...there seems to a suspicion that he is much further to the right on such things as immigration than he advertises. In the debate, for example, he stated categorically that he would never endorse Turkey's entrance into the European Union...for most people this question is or should be a matter of Turkey meeting certain prerequisites in order to be admitted. Even Royale agrees that at present, Turkey has not yet met these conditions but Sarkozy made it clear that he would never support it. His reason? Turkey is part of Asia Minor, not of Europe. Many people find this argument disingenuous at best. They suspect that his real reason is an abiding fear of Islamic culture and that his grander vision for France is closer to the far right's Jean Marie Le Pen than he will admit. This suspicion has fueled some rather dark predictions of what might happen in the Paris banlieues if Sarkozy wins.
Another interesting trope in the campaign is the way the Nordic countries are trotted out to justify various free market reforms. To listen to Sarkozy you would think that Sweden had become the shining light of fiscal responsibility and streamlined government. Maybe it has but he seldom if ever points out that the tax rate there is 55% (in France it's 45%, England is 35%).
Another interesting aspect of this debate is that it took place only three days before the election. There is considerable uncertainty here about whether a win by Sarkozy might portend a major shift in the political landscape in France. There seems little doubt that the electorate in France has shifted or drifted to the right of where it was twenty years ago or even ten years ago...that being said, it's important to remember that this is France where the entire universe is shifted to the left of the American universe. But the left here is clearly on the defensive (at least on the national level, leftists still win important mayoral and legistlative elections around the country) and is faced with a fundamental challenge of whether to become more of a centrist movement a la the Christian Democrat model elsewhere in Europe or whether it will try to regroup and reconsolidate it's many disparate elements and try to retain its leftist identity without becoming irrelevant electorally. Complicating the whole scenario is the European Union factor which seems to divide the French as well.
The elections are tomorrow (Sunday). The post election period promises to be even more interesting perhaps. We've got front row seats anyway.
K

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