OPINION PIECES

Presidential debates and the evolution of French politics

By Dr Dónal Hassett, University College Cork


With the field narrowed to two candidates, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and extreme-right challenger Marine Le Pen, the French Presidential election has entered its most intense phase. The candidates and their surrogates are holding rallies across metropolitan France and the overseas territories in an effort to rally support ahead of the second round of voting on Sunday April 24th. While President Macron has, in line with all of his predecessors, refused a televised debate prior to the first round, he has agreed to face off against his opponent on Wednesday April 20th. This debate, eagerly anticipated by political nerds like myself, will be the eighth such head-to-head since the arrival of television in France. A look back at some of the key moments of these Presidential debates helps us trace the evolution of politics in France in the last fifty years and the role television has played in it.


Most of you will be familiar the (probably apocryphal) story about the first televised presidential debates in the 1960 American election. Legend has it that the radio audience gave the victory to Richard Nixon but the television audience leaned in favour of the charismatic John F. Kennedy, who would go on to win the keys to the White House later that year. While the then French President General Charles De Gaulle was a master communicator who kept the publicly owned media on a tight rein, he steadfastly refused to face off against his opponent in the 1965 election. His successor, Georges Pompidou, maintained the same policy for his election in 1969 so the French would have to wait until 1974 for their first taste of the televised presidential debate.


The election of 1974, to this day the closest of all the Presidential elections, pitted the young centre-right candidate Valéry Giscard d’Estaing against the wily and experienced François Mitterrand, representing a united left. From the outset, Giscard had successfully introduced American style political campaigning, with large rallies, sleek advertising and smooth media performances, to the often staid world of French political media. The televised debate, a key event and major novelty of the campaign, gave Giscard an opportunity to distinguish himself from the older Mitterrand. During the course of the debate, Giscard critiqued Mitterrand as a pillar of an outdated left, a relic of the old political world, describing him as ‘l’homme du passé’ (the man of the past). He further attacked what he considered to be the Left’s self-righteousness, defending his vision of social liberalism by declaring in an oft repeated punchline ‘you do not have a monopoly of the heart, Mr. Mitterrand’, Giscard would go on to win the election by less than half a million votes, with the debate seen as a key contributory factor.


Seven years later, Mitterrand would have his revenge when the two faced off against each other once more. Referring back to Giscard’s jibe in 1974, Miterrand described his opponent as ‘l’homme du passif’ (the passive man), a President incapable of effecting real change. Furthermore, when Giscard tried to lecture the Socialist candidate on economic policy, Mitterrand attacked his arrogance, a common critique of the incumbent president, declaring ‘I am not your student and you are not the President here, you are simply my debating opponent’. The debate was seen as damaging for Giscard and Mitterrand would go on to win the elections.


The 1988 elections saw Mitterrand go toe-to-toe with his own Prime Minister, the centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac. Mitterrand’s party had lost the legislative elections two years previously and he had been engaged in a bitter power struggle with the Chirac ever since. In an effort to echo Mitterrand’s own words seven years before, Chirac started the debate by affirming ‘this evening, I am not the Prime Minister and you are not the President, we are two equal candidates, you will therefore allow me to call you Mr. Mitterrand”. The President immediately responded, with a wry smile, “You are completely right, Mr. Prime Minister”, affirming once more the superiority of his position as President over that of his opponent. The moment solidified Mitterrand’s presidential stature and he went on to an easy victory.


1995 saw Chirac face off against Socialist leader Lionel Jospin in a much less confrontational debate that was widely panned as boring. The one quote that stuck out from the clash was Jopsin urging voters to support his plan to reduce the presidential term to five years by arguing ‘Better five years of Jospin than seven of Chirac’. Chirac, with Jospin as his Prime Minister following a defeat in early legislative elections, would go on to reduce the presidential term, meaning the electorate actually ended up with Chirac for five years.


The shock qualification of extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen for the second round of the 2002 election led President Chirac to refuse to participate in the televised debate, arguing that ‘no debate is possible in the face of intolerance and hatred’. This meant for the first time since 1974 the two leading candidates did not face off against each other on primetime TV. While Le Pen denounced the absence of a debate as a ‘veritable scandal’, Chirac secured an overwhelming victory at the polls.


The 2007 debate saw the first participation of a woman candidate, the Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal, who battled it out with the centre-right’s Nicolas Sarkozy. Royal’s campaign was dogged by misogyny, from her within her own party as well as well as from rival candidates, and the televised debate became the centre of a controversy over political sexism. Sarkozy, known for his fiery temperament, attacked Royal during the debate for saying she was angry about the lack of resources for disabled children, claiming that a ‘President of the Republic must be calm’ and accusing her of ‘losing her nerves’. The critique was condemned by many Royal supporters as sexist, playing on the stereotype of women as ‘emotional’ when it was Sarkozy who was known to have a fierce temper, while the centre-right candidate’s supporters argued it was a justified criticism of a candidate who was ill-prepared for the Presidency.


In 2012, Sarkozy faced off against Royal’s former partner and the then leader of the Socialist Party, François Hollande, in a crucial televised debate. The normally pugnacious President seemed somewhat disengaged and Hollande seized the opportunity to present a counter-image of what the ‘normal presidency’ he hoped to embody would look like. Over the course of an extended soliloquy in which he began each sentence with the phrase ‘I as President of the Republic’, Hollande effectively critiqued the shortcomings of his rival’s tenure in office and projected himself into the role of President. The debate helped solidify his lead in the polls, ensuring he would ultimately secure victory in the election.


Hollande would, of course, go on to be the first incumbent President not to stand for a re-election, a decision that both contributed to and reflected the seismic changes that have transformed the French political landscape in the last five years. The 2017 debate was the first to involve no candidates from the traditional parties of the centre-right and centre-left. Instead, we saw Marine Le Pen of the extreme-right Rassemblement National go head-to-head with Emmanuel Macron of the new En Marche movement. The debate proved disastrous for Le Pen when Macron, known for his mastery of detail, exposed her ignorance of key facts and figures. While Le Pen’s fatigue contributed to her poor performance, she and her advisers also fell into a trap laid by her opponent’s campaign team. Macron’s advisers had deliberately told journalists off the record that he might leave the debate if Le Pen was too aggressive, a claim that got back to her campaign team and led them to go all in on the attacks against Macron. This allowed Macron to present his opponent as extreme and unsuitable for the Presidency. The debate led to a notable decline in support for Le Pen and helped pave the way for Macron’s victory.


It is highly unlikely that Le Pen will repeat the same errors in the upcoming debate. She has spent the last five years publicly atoning for her poor performance and honing her already well-developed media skills. She will also be graded on curve this time; any improvement on last time will be seen as a positive. Furthermore, the presence of the radical far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour in the first round of the election has allowed her to present herself as more moderate and mainstream, even while her policies, rooted in xenophobia and Islamophobia, have not significantly changed. Macron remains a formidable debate opponent, though he is now encumbered with a record of governance that has plenty of weak points that Le Pen will try to exploit. Both candidates will have to balance their efforts to appeal to the significant reserve of left-wing voters with their need to mobilise and consolidate their own electoral bases from the first round. With the polls still very close, the debate is sure to have an important influence on the outcome election and given the personal and political animus between the two candidates, it should make for compelling viewing.


"Le Pen & Macron, French election posters 2017" by Lorie Shaull is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

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