Given that no knockout blows were delivered and no amazing new policy pronouncements uttered in tonight's French Presidential debate the chance of French voters changing the election course forecast by the polls (53% Sarkozy)is about as likely as Battersea Park serving as a pick up joint for lonely FTSE 100 CEOs.

Mme Royale came in knowing she had to take wavering voters both sides of center. Yet she adhered fast to socialist dogma rather than setting out an accommodating stall. At times appearing impervious to logic she stuck out for a refusal to answer direct questions until she was compelled by her own pronouncements to do so (eg nuclear power would be maintained despite her promoting the necessity of greener alternatives). She announced a capital gains tax increase but would not say how large (“it will be of the necessary size”). She kicked all awkward questions into the long grass of “that has to be discussed with all the social partners”. She ring-fenced public sector jobs as untouchable.

Which in sum meant she frequently did not appear mistress of her brief, frank, decisive or politically savvy.

She did aim (though not always land) flurries of blows, notably labeling M Sarkozy a liar and immoral on a basis not entirely clear (allegedly for voting down legislation easing the attendance of the physically disabled in schools and then saying what a fine idea it was during the debate). But as with most of her attacks she appeared shrill, emotionally manufactured (indignation in this case) and dependent on the moral-high-ground approach, couching personal slurs in the language of “social justice”.

Strategically, her side must count the cost of this line of attack: is there really mileage enough in anti-Sakozyism to bulk swing the wavering center Bayrou voters her way? She faces a 6 percentage point gap in the polls; and the 9% to 19% (depends which poll is consulted) who declared a firm intention to vote but refused to say how are not, this scribe would suggest, her natural constituency. As with far right voters they are (mostly) more likely not to want to be identified as pseudo fascists in the way Sarkozy has been demonized.

No, Mme Royale spent 72 minutes and twenty seconds preaching to the converted instead of proselytizing. By appearing evasive (on nuclear power and the new capital gains tax), pedantic (“flattening” the Fillon legislation is not the same as dismantling it) and reluctant to simply state her position (cf those social partners discussions) she seemed fearful of defending or laying out detailed positions. Instead recourse was made to broad visions of upholding the most general principles of social equality upon which the entire political spectrum is broadly in consensus; and to personal attacks on her opponent's integrity that certainly play well with her hard core support but may backfire in the quest for the undecided.

In sum, it is extremely difficult to see how this timid approach combined with a relatively discourteous and impolite attitude to her opponent might have convinced waverers that they were watching gravitas in action.

M Sarkozy may be too Hollywood for many voters’ tastes. He may attract venom for suggesting people do not work enough; he may use the immigration issue for Machiavellian political ends (he did subtly enough during the debate to allay the fears of hard right and middle); he questionably taps a popular xenophobia by rejecting out of hand the notion of a Turkey within the EU; and so on. But he has a direct take it or leave it quality that appeals to the French love of frankness. His own dogma is well mixed with pragmatism; his delivery style is relaxed; and he took personal attacks graciously without returning same fire.

We will never know which will administer more skilfully. But it is clear which campaign strategy is superior. M Sarkozy is likely to beat the point spread come Sunday.

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3 comments

  1. "Cassandra" // 5/03/2007 02:22:00 AM

    Thanks, Rawdon. That was both a fascinating and terribly useful distillation.

    It's indeed better to vote for a candidate and their manifesto than against a candidate, but there are cases, where it is better to be led, albeit imperfectly, than follow what one knows intuitively to be a path to no-where (or worse). The beeb really should have done a special with you as Their Man In Grenoble!

  2. RJH Adams // 5/03/2007 08:53:00 AM

    That Mme Royale could have crystallised this perception would have made for a more interesting debate. As it was post-debate comment saw some ordinary voters (allegedly waverers) saying “they say Sarko is frightening but she’s the one who scared me tonight”.

    His opponents have not proved their case that Sarkozy is “a danger to democracy”. But the perception amongst them that he is too authoritarian will probably lead to a third round (in the form of now institutionalized street demonstrations) at the first opportunity as there is little sign of the left accepting a UMP mandate with good grace.

    The legislative elections are a short hop, skip and jump after the main event (10 – 17 June) and take on an important significance in this polarized context. Mme Royale, for example, signaled with her comments on the street-rejected Contrat de Premiere Embauche the view that no matter that deputies be elected representatives there will be no “forcing” of bills down national throats.

    In a nutshell, that is why France is close to ungovernable no matter how authoritarian its president(e) is.

  3. Charles Butler // 5/03/2007 10:56:00 AM

    I've had, for a fairly long time, the uneasy feeling that the continued framing of the 'problem' in late-nineteenth century philosophical terms à la Marx/Weber, and such, and the visualizing of the 'solution' with the binary utopian rhetoric of, say, 1968 is, at best, misguided in the 'end of history' post-cold war.

    Quite obviously, we still think that the paradise constructed on a foundation of the U.S.S.R. pointing nuclear warheads at the west whilst we were protected by the equal force of the U.S.A. is still in effect. But the absolute failure of the liberal west to impose any kind of political agenda on China as a sine qua non of its entry into the industrialized, Soviet Union-free world (not to mention the irrelevance of thus expressed solutions in the Middle East) has marked the end of the road for the grand plan, now fully convulsed into parochial silliness. The right will get its president, the left, its legislature, and then there's the barricades. Everybody wins.

    This all may sound like a criticism directed exclusively at the left. But the paultry and petty political choices we're stuck with everywhere are all tied firmly to that same maypole.

    Squabbling towards redemption, I remain,

    CB

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