Wednesday, 2 May 2007

French Presidential Debate Preview (and Sarkozy's preference for Le Pen voters over shoplifters)

Paris is all ablaze with expectation before the debate between Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, which will air tonight. (I expect I'll be writing a piece on it for Bits of News and link to it here.)

Everyone, of course, hopes that the candidate they oppose will make some major, all-determining, gaffe tonight. Perhaps Royal, keen throughout the campaign to reappropriate the Marsaillaise for the left, will start singing it – to the tune of the International? Or perhaps Sarkozy will once again offer to hoover France's suburbs free of thugs? Both scenarios are admittedly rather unlikely... But minor gaffes, or at least errors of stylistic judgement, there might well be – only, on whose side?

It must be said that the gaffes in this election campaign have, by and large, been committed by Royal. For example, she expressed her wish that Quebecans should live in liberty – earning her a rebuke from Canadian officials who thought she might be advocating Quebec's independence. For months she lost popularity because her only response to any policy question was: “I'll ask the French what they think about this”. And when Royal finally published her detailed election manifesto, her team could not say how much the numerous promises it entailed would cost. “Ring us in three days; we'll have the figures by then”, they told a reporter.

But Sarkozy is catching up fast. Before the first round, he told the Magazine Philosophique that peadophilia was probably genetically predetermined, infuriating left-liberals and conservative Catholics alike. (Royal refused to disagree, saying that she had to “ask the experts what they think about this”. At least limited progress on opinion-poll democracy, there). More importantly, he has over-reacted against the televised debate between Francois Bayrou, the popular centrist, and Royal, thus giving the impression that he had ample reason to be worried about it. Questioned about this on TV a few days ago, he kept repeating, in a rather aggressive manner, that the media were all biased against him – a complaint that few here find credible.

What's worse for a man equally revered and hated for his frankness, Sarkozy has been getting dangerously close to hypocrisy. Throughout the election campaign he has openly courted far-right voters, promising to address their worries more effectively than Le Pen. Criticised for going fishing in unsavoury waters, he defended himself by saying that politicians should try to win any French voter back to the democratic spectrum, no matter what their convictions.

But now, Sarkozy apparently (I only have one source on this) told voters in Corsica that he does not want small-time criminals to vote for him. Those who free-ride on the metro, he is reported to have said, needn't vote for him – he only wants votes from les vrais francais.

In aniticipation of the debate, this might make an interesting topic: should politicians try to appeal to the entirety of the population? Or do they, on the contrary, have a responsibility to by-pass a part of the electorate? And if so, who's worse: someone who voted Le Pen in 2002, or someone who shoplifts a beer from a supermarket every now and again?