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Last Impressions

Décision 2007: The wacky Sarkozy-Royal debate

To Americans who associate presidential campaigns with barrages of television commercials and stilted joint news conferences masquerading as debates, the second round of the French presidential campaign will have seemed strangely old-fashioned. With television time for Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal strictly limited, the electioneering has consisted mostly of long, carefully-prepared speeches before large crowds of supporters, and a single, hard-hitting televised debate Wednesday night, to which at least one-third of the French population tuned in.

Although not exactly at the level of Lincoln and Douglas, the debate still put modern American politics to shame. I doubt that even the best and brightest of our politicians could have held their own against either of the French candidates. President Bush would not have lasted 60 seconds. For two hours, both Sarkozy and Royal spoke in full sentences, made cogent arguments, had relevant facts at their fingertips (not always correct ones, it is true--both flubbed statistics on nuclear energy), and responded directly to each other. Their criticisms were remarkably sharp, but also remarkably eloquent. At one point Royal accused Sarkozy of "the height of political immorality," and Sarkozy told her to calm down, because a president needs to be calm. Royal responded: "No, not in the face of injustice! There is such a thing as healthy anger, because it comes in response to people's suffering. I will sometimes be angry, even when I am president of the Republic!"

Royal's anger did feel somewhat staged: She clearly wanted to provoke Sarkozy into showing the mean, Nixonian streak which has made him so widely hated in France (just this Sunday, a group of prominent left-wing artists and scientists warned that his election could put France "at war with itself"). She interrupted him constantly: "You're joking! ... That's not serious! ... That's not true! ... Be serious!" The strategy failed, for Sarkozy remained defiantly calm--but perhaps too much so. He condescendingly lectured Royal about not "flying off the handle" in a way that almost certainly lost him female votes (as well as giving some insight into the famously troubled state of the Sarkozy marriage).

More importantly, Royal put Sarkozy on the defensive, so that his campaign themes of work, law and order, and national identity barely came across. Again and again, Royal effectively managed to turn the debate away from these broader issues and back to the famous French social "protections" she accuses Sarkozy of wishing to demolish. And whenever Sarkozy tried to pose as a reformer, she interrupted him with the same question: Your party has been in power for five years; why haven't you done this already? When he brought up questions of "violence and delinquency," she broke in to remind him that the man in charge of the police for most of the past five years has been ... Nicolas Sarkozy.

In his final campaign speeches, Sarkozy has been attempting to address precisely the predicament of how to call for radical change while belonging to the incumbent party, the Union for a Popular Movement. But he has not done so very effectively. The real problem with France, he has been charging, is a "moral crisis" whose roots go back well before his party took power--all the way back to the 1960s, and the "moral and intellectual relativism" symbolized by the student revolt of May, 1968. Last Sunday, he reiterated the point before 40,000 supporters at an indoor sports arena, in the company of two prominent intellectual critics of "'68 thought," Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann. He labelled Royal and the Socialists the direct heirs of 1968, and even appealed to France's "silent majority" (la majorité silencieuse) against them. But as Royal effectively retorted, two days later: "What bug did he get bitten by? ... That was 40 years ago!" In any case, if Sarkozy wants to avoid appearing Nixonian, this is probably not the best way to go about it.

Royal herself, meanwhile, has been trying, with some success, to evoke the spirit of a different American politician: John F. Kennedy. Never before, in a Republic ruled by a long succession of balding, paunchy, middle-aged men, has a presidential candidate made such blatant use of sex appeal. At her own mammoth rally on Tuesday, Royal entered a stadium in a flowing, bright-colored skirt-and-jacket combination that showed off her figure to advantage, accompanied by a catchy pop campaign song, flashing a perfect white smile, and looking considerably younger than her 53 years (few would guess that she is actually a year older than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom she touts as a role model). All along, Royal has held up her sex and her femininity as positive reasons to vote for her, in a way that few American female politicians, in their conservative suits and pearls, have ever dared. Sarkozy left it up to a female subordinate to make the predictable, sneering attack: "We cannot afford to have someone in charge who changes her mind as often as her skirts."

In sum, in the final days before Sunday's election, Royal appears to have performed far more effectively than in the earlier, gaffe-prone stages of her campaign. She has gained ground--helped along as well by Jean-Marie Le Pen's appeal to his own right-wing electorate to abstain, and by centrist François Bayrou's declaration on Thursday that he will not vote for Sarkozy. But her strategy has been a high-risk one. In a Republic ostentatiously committed to the principle of meritocracy, will voters--even female voters--choose someone who presents herself explicitly as the candidate of women? And in a country which gave women the right to vote only in the 1940s and full legal equality within marriage only in the 1960s, will voters--especially male voters--choose a woman who comes across as both aggressive and sexually confident? (Yes, there's a contradiction here, but France can be a contradictory place sometimes.) On Sunday, we may see just how old-fashioned French politics really is.

By David A. Bell