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.

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Poverty Britain calling Labour: Get radical or lose your heartlands to the right

Moderate policies don't reflect the extremity of the times.

If you woke up on the 24th June in shock to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU, you won't have been alone. Perhaps you also felt similar feelings about the Labour party last September, when it elected its most left-wing leader in a generation.

I am an ex-charity leader and Labour party activist who ended up leading the Remain campaign in the North East. What is happening politically in the UK is less of a shock to me.

I know a world you probably will never see. In my 12 years of working in North East communities, I have worked with children who lived three miles from the beach but who had never seen the sea. I have supported grown women who had never been to a restaurant. I counselled boys who had never left the town they were born in, and handed out food parcels to widows whose benefit sanction meant they had no food. This is Poverty Britain, and people are hurting.

I knew the EU referendum was going to be tough, when on the first day of the Stronger In campaign trail in the North East, we hit the town of Washington, close to Sunderland. Boarded-up shop fronts, grey faces and eyes on the floor all told of hardship and decline. The people here were already converted - they wanted out. These people, like those I had worked, had been ignored for too long. Their story overlooked, their lives forgotten and their plight becoming harder and harder.

As situations become more extreme, so do the solutions people turn to. Moderate middle ground policies don’t speak to the pain of someone living in the backwaters of a post-industrial city. Saving your NHS, reducing migration, taking back control and blaming “others”, does. It offers a simple solution to complex problems.

Corbynism grows against a similar backdrop. Corbyn has a message of hope. He is calling out for a new type of society, for tackling vested interests, going after the bankers, offering free education for all, speaking up for the vulnerable and doing politics differently. To some, he might seem as extreme as voting for Brexit or UKIP. But to the disability activist fighting welfare changes, or the cleaners and teaching assistants fighting for better pay, or the women's group fighting cuts in domestic violence services, a more radical Labour party offers hope. Like Brexiteers, these people are disillusioned and fed up of the status quo. They too want change. 

Centrists in the Labour party believe a Corbyn-led Labour party means any chance of change will be impossible, because Corbyn will keep them out of power. Corbynism is only for those middle-class, liberal lefty types, they say. He doesn’t speak to the mainstream.

The reality is less clear cut. On the campaign trail, speaking to working-class voters, I sensed confusion. They liked some of what he has to say, but he didn’t chime with their deeply patriotic and nationalist identities (or what they had read in the right-wing press). 

The biggest problem for Labour, though, is the focus on a leader to take them to the promised land. But the Labour party is as much about those within it as the leader. The real radical politics is as much about ownership and engagement as policy.

We can collectively decide the future, working together from a grassroots level, and rebuild the Labour party we want to see. There are some brilliant ideas within the party -  radical and practical, innovative and traditional. Harnessing these ideas could enable the Labour party to be the central force in British politics once again.

One thing is for sure, without a new left-wing offer that speaks to the dissatisfaction many British citizens are feeling, radical right wing ideas. If that happens, I dread what type of country we could become.