Last night’s first of three French presidential debates, if not exactly rivetting television, at least showed that the level of discourse and quick-witted intelligence in what remains of the Fifth Republic has not entirely descended into gutter-talk. Nothing was resolved, but then no one ever thought it would be.
What was most impressive was that the spectacle went on for three-and-a-half hours, testing the bladders as well as the resourcefulness of the five participants. The moderators, two seasoned political inquisitors, rarely intruded, introducing topics but otherwise confining themselves to the role of hosts at a high-level dinner party.
Marine Le Pen, the by-now veteran leader of the Front National, and Emmanuel Macron, the appropriately named messiah of the technocratic centre, more or less lived up to their billing, she as the perennial insurgent from the populist Right, he as Tony Blair à la française, issuing a clarion-call for some ill-defined “third way” that while free of class and tradition somehow retained its Establishment sheen. François Fillon meanwhile, as the embattled representative of the Catholic Conservative Right, fighting off charges of corruption in high places, looked old and tired and, frankly, out of it – like a bishop pretending that the latest charges of institutional child abuse had nothing to do with him.
“I have probably made some mistakes,” he said at the end, “Everyone has defects … But I am the only candidate to propose real change and I remain determined to turn France into the most beautiful of countries”.
The others – Benoît Hamon, of the Socialist Party, and Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the far-Left Parti de Gauche – put in spirited performances, but you knew somehow that they hadn’t a mission and that whatever they said was in effect irrelevant.
If Proximo, the Coloseum’s master of ceremonies in the film Gladiator, had been in charge, he would have been reasonably satisfied with the performances put in by Le Pen and Macron, though disappointed not to see a killer blow delivered. The advice he gave to Russell Crowe’s Maximus as he prepared to enter the arena was both sage and timeless: “Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom,” or in this case, the Presidency.
Le Pen stood out first and foremost because she was a woman, and a Woman of strong convictions: a gallic Boadicea. Macron, Fillon and Hamon all wore the by now de rigeur uniform of male members of the French political class – dark blue suits, worn tight-fitting, and narrow blue ties. Only Melenchon, accoutered in what looked to be a tailored cardigan, stood out sartorially, like Jeremy Corbyn if Corbyn was not in fact the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
What was actually said hardly mattered. Standing at stations not unlike those on the starship Enterprise, though bleached of all colour in deference to the notional solemnity of the occasion, the contestants delivered their set-pieces and interrupted each other with a kind of fierce, yet restrained, cordiality.
What was perhaps most surprising was that the subject of Europe, and Brexit, hardly came up. It could be that the EU and the euro will dominate the next debate, or the one after that, but last night the rivals for what passes these days for the majesty of the Elysée concentrated on domestic issues. It was the French NHS, even more than immigration and terrorism, that was front and forward, illustrating the sense of millions of French voters that old certainties can no longer be taken for granted and they may be on the cusp of an era they neither want nor asked for.
Ony Le Pen (who else?) went for an early knock-out blow.
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“I want to be President of the French Republic,” she began, “but, really, I don’t aspire to administer what has become a region, a vague region, of the European Union. I don’t want to be Madame Merkel’s vice-chancellor. I don’t want to be the sales rep for various multinational corporations … there has been an ‘explosion’ of insecurity, of violence, of burglaries, on the entire French territory, including in the most remote villages”.
The prisons were full of recidivists; too many parents were failing to raise their children to respect French values; Muslim immigrants, egged on by hate-filled preachers, were polluting the environment.
Repeating her promise to hold a referendum on Europe, she vowed to take on the technocrats of Brussels who denied France its independece. She would not accept economic diktats. She would not permit Muslim immigration or the free movement of people. She would, she said, addressing herself to the voters, “restore the liberties you deserve”.
Macron, who in his closing remarks chose to thank his fellow contestants for joining him on the stage, was markedly less strident. Confident even arrogant, he concentrated on issues of labour reform, the need to upgrade health and social care and to work with France’s European partners without sacrificing the country’s beloved “independence”. But, like the technocrat he is, he was less than electric in his delivery.
At one point, Le Pen, who had earlier mocked him for his elite education and banking background, interrupted his flow with a stinging rebuke, perhaps the high-point of the evening.
“You have a crazy talent,” she told him. “You have managed to speak for seven minutes, yet I am incapable of summarising your thoughts. You’ve said nothing. It’s completely empty. It must be an art.”
The others smirked, though perhaps a little uncomfortably. They knew that Macron was the most likely to take on Le Pen in the second round of the election, and while they enjoed watching him being taken down, they did not relish the fact that it was the National Front leader who had wielded the axe.
Overall, Macron did not do badly. He may not have said much, but he said it with conviction. It was strange, perhaps, that at the end of the marathon, when the contestants had belatedly turned to foreign affairs and the terrorist threat to France, that he chose to say little beyond promising “more Europe” and a liberation of the country by way (you know) of an “in-depth renewal of politics.” His determination, repeated several times, that what France needed was a diplomatic “roadmap” to see it through the years ahead sounded uncannily like George W Bush’s approach to the Middle East and as likely to produce the desired result.
An hour or so earlier, the 39-year-old had chided Le Pen for seeking to characterise his views on immigration, which include revoking the citizenship of those who entered France to do it harm. “I do not need a ventriloquist,” he told her. But then, with his arm firmly up his own derriere, he couldn’t seem to find the words necessary to reassure a nervous electorate that he would tackle the myriad of threats they face with anything much beyond a review of all available instruments, including an all-new Defence Council to take charge of “homeland security”.
He was, you’d have to say, an impressive-looking firecracker that fizzled and spluttered but didn’t quite go off.
Hamon, Melenchon and, most of all, Fillon, had the appearance of candidates there to make up the numbers. Hamon – whose approach to the 35-hour week held by many to be at the root of France’s economic difficulties is to make it a thirty-two -hour week – was lucid but uninspired. Melenchon lost no opportunity to wave his hands in the air and promise a fresh start for the poor, the unemployed and the wretched of the Earth. He would, I suspect, have made an excellent member of Mr Attlee’s cabinet in 1945.
Fillon, looking understandably exhausted, managed to hold his end up, but looked to be firing on no more than three cylinders, as if he knows in his heart that his next important appointment is not so much with the electorate as with the examining magistrate charged with investigating the cash from state funds he paid to his wife and children for work that that they appear not to have done.
But who knows? There are to be two more debates – hopefully less extended than this one – and there are still chances for everyone involved to make a comeback. Until then, it is Le Pen and Macron who jointly hold the conch and they who look most likely to slug it out for the biggest job in France.