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
Show Hide image

Is the French Left having its Jeremy Corbyn moment?

Benoit Hamon won the first round of the Socialist party's presidential primaries. 

Has the French Left taken a Corbynite turn? That's certainly the verdict of many after the first round of the French Socialist Party's primary.

In first place is Benoit Hamon, who quit Francois Hollande's government over its right turn in 2014, and counts the adoption of a universal basic income, the legalisation of cannabis and the right to die among his policy proposals, with 36 per cent of the vote.

In second place and facing an uphill battle to secure the nomination is Manuel Valls, the minister who more than any other symbolized the rightward lurch of Hollande's presidency, with 31 per cent. That of the five eliminated candidates - under the French system, if no candidate secures more than half of the vote, the top two go through to a run-off round - only one could even arguably be said to be closer to Valls than Hamon shows the struggle he will have to close the gap next weekend. And for a variety of reasons, even supporters of his close ally Sylvia Pinel may struggle to put a tick in his box. 

Still, Valls clearly believes that electability is his best card, and he's compared Hamon to Corbyn, who "chose to remain in opposition". Also making the Hamon-Corbyn comparison is most of the British press and several high-profile activists in the French Republican Party.

Is it merited? The differences are probably more important than the similarities: not least that Hamon served as a minister until 2014, and came up through the backrooms. In terms of the centre of gravity and the traditions of his party, he is much closer in analogue to Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham than he is to Jeremy Corbyn, though Corbynistas and Hamonites bear a closer resemblance to one another than their leaders to.

What will give heart to the leader's office is that Hamon surged in the polls after each debate, when his ideas were given a bigger platform. But what will alarm everyone in Labour is the French Socialists' poll ratings - they are expected to get just 6 per cent in the elections. (And before you scoff at the polls, it's worth noting that they have, so far, performed admirably in the French electoral cycle, picking up on the lightning rise of both Hamon and Francois Fillon.)

That attests to something it's easy to forget in Westminster, where we tend to obsess over the United States and ignore politics on the Continent, despite the greater commonalities: throughout Europe, social democratic parties are in a fight for their lives, no matter if they turn to the left or the right.

The Democrats, in contrast, won the presidential election by close to three million votes and lost due to the electoral college. They have good prospects in the midterm elections and their greatest threat is gerrymandering and electoral malfeasance. But absent foul play, you'd have to be very, very brave to bet on them going extinct.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.