Style is clearly more important than substance in Presidential debates. Unfortunately, after 45 minutes of speaking time for each candidate, I was, quite frankly, very disappointed on both accounts. Neither SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal nor Nicolas Sarkozy were able to present coherent arguments of their respective programmes. Instead, they kept constantly interrupting each other, Royal more so than Sarkozy, kept losing discourse threads (sometimes even without being interrupted) in pointless debates about specific figures or jumped from one point to another. Sarkozy may have been a little more concise on the economic parts (taxes, pensions, labour market regulation, welfare) of the debate, but he certainly did not “win” that debate by any stretch of imagination.
If her campaign’s intention was to prove toughness while his was trying to present the calmer side of Sarko, the two contenders probably made their communications staff happy. This became most apparent in their discussion of family politics and education, when Royal accused Sarkozy of “immorality” for proposing a policy he essentially abolished before. Sarkozy was very defensive with respect to her emotional outbreak, only being able to claim that a president always needs to keep his calm. Is that so? No emotions allowed in the ElyssÃ©e?
Interestingly, Versac – whose description of their discussion about social services may well be my favorite phrase of the evening – “il ne manque que “discrimination positive” pour remplir une ligne de bullshit bingo” – believes that this was the make-or-break moment of the entire debate – and he thinks Royal made the decisive point – “C’est peut-Ãªtre ici que s’est fait le truc ? Sarkozy s’enfonce, son regard fuit, il joue la victime, elle est dans la belle colÃ¨re, sur un sujet lÃ©gitime.”
In my opinion mirroring the entire campaigns, neither Europe nor foreign policy questions were given even remotely enough weight in the discussion. Both candidates presented “Europe” as merely an extension of the French social security system, a way to prevent the globalisation-induced perceived race to the bottom, some kind of new “continental system”. This may have beeen a possible line of thought for Royal, but it doesn’t make sense for Sarkozy.
Royal mentioned Jaques Delors to impress some staunch pro-Europeans, Sarkozy made a reference to the Luxembourg compromise that I did not quite understand. Either he wants to reaffirm national vetos or he doesn’t. It probably depends on the subject, as he made clear that “the French said no” to the constitutional treaty. In the end, SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal noted that “Europe needs to be strong”, and that “France needs Europe and Europe needs France”. Sometimes it’s good to restate the obvious. Some people might forget.
Their lengthy discussion of the challenges and merits of a possible Turkish membership was ridden with references to the “great Turkish people” which probably sounded condescending even to National Front voters. Both don’t think Turkish membership would be appropriate, but while Sarkozy would like to be the one to tell them, Royal seems to prefer the current state of handling the issue – negotiate, help Turkey modernize, and eventually let the great Turkish people realize for themselves they don’t want full membership.
Royal ended the debate by briefly outlining her agenda of institutional reforms, which, if ever realized would clearly change the French Semi-Presidential system profoundly. Sarkozy, on the other hand, is naturally afraid of change that sounds even remotely like 4th Republic, whatever the number used to label it.
So was there a winner? Well, that depends. Royal’s “competence-mishaps” earlier this year, in my opinion made her the winner of the expectations game tonight. She was better than I thought she would be. Tonight, both candidates were on par, for better or worse. On Sunday we’ll know what the French – particularly those about 15 undecided percent of them – really made of the debate.