The French media circus continues

The French presidential TV debates would cause de Gaulle to turn in his grave.

Seventy-year-old Jacques Cheminade, a man with close ties to the controversial American conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed political activist Lyndon LaRouche, is running for president in the French election this month. He believes, among other things, that violent video games should be outlawed; that the industrialisation of the moon is an economic imperative; that Queen Elizabeth II's fortune is partly predicated on a worldwide drug-smuggling ring; and that it is not ridiculous to compare Barack Obama to Hitler, as Lyndon LaRouche has done on several occasions.

On 9 April, the official presidential campaign was launched, meaning that all ten candidates must be given equal air time in the media. Prior to this, the Solidarité and Progres candidate, who is credited with less than 0.5 per cent of votes in current polls for the first round of the election on 22 April, had only been given 0.4 per cent of the total media coverage of the presidential election since January.

Last Thursday evening, in front of 4.2m viewers, Cheminade was quizzed by four prominent journalists on prime-time French public television. An eloquent speaker, he defended his desire to uncover the truth behind the 9/11 bombings and to reduce the travel time between Earth and Mars down to 10-15 days. He was also asked by one of the panel experts whether he wasnt more of an absent-minded Professor Calculus figure than a serious politician.

The occasion for this grilling was a two-part public debate under conditions of strict equality, whereby the ten presidential candidates - from Nicolas Sarkozy to the affable Trotskyist Philippe Poutou  - each took their turn in defending their ideas in front of a bemused post-adolescent studio audience on Wednesday and Thursday night. Each contender was given an arbitrary 16 minutes 34 seconds speaking time, discounted only when they spoke. Three panel experts joined David Pujadas, a younger and smugger French version of Paxman, in this public inquisition: Francois Lenglet, an economic expert; Fabien Namias, on politics; and Nathalie Saint-Cricq, whose indeterminate role seemed to involve destabilising the candidates with personalised piques.

The show was bizarrely produced in a pseudo-relaxed style, in spite of the palpable tension, borrowing at once from the conventional chat-show formula and live sports broadcasting. Each candidate was introduced to the tune of "Woman in Blue" by Pepe Deluxe. A backstage journalist, as if reporting on the players fitness on the sidelines of a football match, periodically updated viewers on the to-ings and fro-ings of the candidates and their interactions (only the Green candidate Eva Joly and hot favourite François Hollande deigned to salute each other). A cinema-sized screen towered above the panel, broadcasting mute behind-the-scenes footage of other usually more prominent candidates going through make-up in their dressing rooms. Poor Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, an insignificant far-right candidate with Le Penian leanings, had to endure a good five minutes of footage of the National Front candidate arriving in the building while attempting to defend his anti-Euro protectionist economic policy. All the candidates knew they were being filmed at all times; all acted accordingly: smiling, shaking many hands, attempting to look presidential.

The conditions of strict equality, however, were trampled underfoot by the journalists subjectivity and arrogance on both evenings. The smaller candidates were barely given a chance to extricate themselves from the occasional oddities of their proposed policies. Françcis Bayrou, the centrist candidate who came third in 2007 but is trailing both Marine Le Pen and the Leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in this weeks polls, was practically ridiculed by the anchor Pujadas for evading a question on his proposed reduction of public spending. Mélenchon himself, who expounds a liberal view on immigration, was shown a video of ex-Communist Party leader George Marchais, who died in 1997, giving a speech against immigration. "Enough with George Marchais and declarations from twenty years ago," raged the new darling of the French radical left. This after he had been asked if he was not cultivating a personality cult in the Stalinist tradition.

The outgoing president, finally, made a typically boisterous appearance, playing, bizarrely, on his experience of "four years of crises". Quizzed on a recent Financial Times comment piece praising his rivals economic policy, he responded, not without a hint of chauvinism: "That newspaper has always defended the Anglo-Saxon model! They dont agree with me? I'm pleased, because I dont agree with them!" It is difficult to see how Sarkozy can overturn the odds and defeat Hollande now, in spite of his persistent fear-mongering on the economy and immigration. The Toulouse shootings briefly played in his favour as the security-conscious incumbent, but recent polls have seen Hollande rise above him again in the first round.

Will this television debate have changed anything? Not on the strength of the recent polls. Marine Le Pen will probably come third, trailing Sarkozy and Hollande by some ten points, and ahead of Mélenchon and Bayrou, a contender for next Prime Minister regardless of who wins the election. Sarkozy will come fighting into the second round, but, short of a major upset, he will get trounced. Cameron's Britain, like Thatcher's, will soon be dealing with a left-wing alliance in power in France. It is not improbable that radicals and Greens such as Joly find themselves in ministerial positions. For the time being, the media circus continues, and de Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand and co are doubtless turning in their graves.

Jacques Testard is co-founder and editor of the White Review.

Jacques Cheminade, Getty images

Jacques Testard is co-founder and editor of The White Review.

Getty Images.
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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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