Just before Sunday’s presidential election in France, the task of organising the final battle between the two run-off contenders was given over to French television. In itself, this wasn’t new. TV debates have been a regular feature in France since 1974. But this time round, given the preponderance of “fake news” and unverified claims in the world, an interesting new feature was introduced, which consisted of a team of rigourous journalists called “decoders”, conducting simultaneous online fact-checking.
But, first, the two contenders: Seated on the screen’s right was Emmanuel Macron — 39 years old, sharp-witted, rigourous. A product of Sciences Po, a top French school, Macron belongs ideologically neither to the left, nor to the right, or perhaps a bit to both, but with an overall philosophical coherence that seems to be growing every day. A former advisor to the outgoing President Francois Hollande, later, his minister of economic affairs, Macron is a staunch believer as much in the laws of capitalism as in the rules of a republican democracy.
He is heavily supported, by conviction or default, by large sections of the left and liberal electorate, apart from personalities like Barack Obama. Opinion polls rate his chances of winning at around 60 to 40.
Seated on the left was Marine Le Pen. Charming, with a perpetual sardonic smile on her face. Behind the smile lies a tough woman, and the tougher legacy of her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, a man who called the Nazi gas chambers a mere “detail” of history. After throwing her father out of the party, Marine Le Pen became the head of the National Front, which is the largest, most organised far-right organisation in Europe.
She might have pushed her father out, but she kept the party’s inheritance intact — xenophobia, Islamophobia, immigrant-phobia, anti-Europeanism, anti-globalisation. One National Front slogan sums it up: “France for the French”. Le Pen is also implicated in a corruption case relating to the European parliament.
But barely had the green signal been given to Le Pen to start the TV debate, she turned it into a slanging match. Until now, the purpose of presidential debates had been to allow one last chance to the audience to get acquainted with the programmes of the two contenders.
In this case, Marine Le Pen, using sharp-tongued invective, pointing fingers and employing cynical sobriquets, went on an all-out attack against Emmanuel Macron, undoubtedly in a bid to destabilise him. She called him “a darling of the system and its élites”, “a candidate of a wild globalisation”, “heir of the system”, “Junior Hollande”, etc.
Despite the barbs hurled at him by his adversary, Macron defended himself admirably, with relative calm, wit and alacrity. In the midst of heated exchanges, he even managed to explain several points of his own programme convincingly, including his take on Europe, globalisation, terrorism and domestic issues.
Interestingly, when he realised that Marine Le Pen’s strategy throughout the debate had been to cut into and chop through his arguments, without speaking at all of her own programme, he demanded that she come out with a positive proposal. Unbelievable as it may seem, Marine Le Pen had little to offer on this score. Gilbert Glassman, a keen observer of such debates for over 40 years, remarked to others watching, “I was shocked by the abysmally low level of her debate and thinking. She knew nothing, she couldn’t even defend her own programme. How could she reach the run-off stage?!”
But when the debate was finally over, my mind wandered back to French elections of earlier days. I wondered if something had radically changed in France. Wasn’t this trite debate a sea change from what France had been?
There was a time when presidential candidates making election speeches gave vent to their lofty ideals, their vision of history and the world. There was a Mitterand who borrowed from Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès and Mendès France to paint his view of history and the human condition. Even the Republican right invoked the crackling transmitter speeches of Charles de Gaulle from London, to speak of its own contribution in shaping the destiny of France.
In contrast, the debate we had witnessed looked what the French call “nombriliste” (narrow and inward-looking; literally, “navelist”, being obsessed by your own navel). Apart from fleeting references to Russia and America (and even India), the frontiers of this debate went no farther than those of Europe. But again, a good debate requires two equals. Marine Le Pen, whose rise has been based purely on harnessing the popular anger against successive regimes, is hardly a person of historical vision.
Supported by opinion polls, Macron appears to be the possible winner of the 2017 presidential poll. But in fact, his biggest hurdle remains Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Far Left candidate who won 20 per cent of the French vote and whose refusal to choose between “the plague and the cholera” has prevented him from giving a clear signal to his supporters to vote Macron. Melenchon’s abstentions could pave the way for a victory of the Far Right. Melenchon might save France from a plague or a cholera, but only to leave us in the clutches of a cancer that threatens to kill democracy itself.