Last night’s electoral debate had record audiences. This morning I hear ‘Ségo won – she was stronger than we expected – she looked Sarko straight in the eye and knew her stuff’ but I also hear ‘She was arrogant – it was intolerable to have her interrupt almost every sentence M. Sarkozy pronounced – she lost her cool – she is trying to be all things to all people, using an emotional appeal to win support, but has no coherent policy to finance her proposals.’
And what about Nicholas Sarkozy? ‘She may have won but he did not lose’ ‘He remained calm despite her permanent aggression and interruption’ ‘He wore her down until she lost her temper, then pronounced his unforgettable comment that a President must be calm’ ‘He was slumping and shiftily consulting his notes when she really attacked’.
It was a magnificently engineered gruelling debate that lasted almost until midnight. The two chairpersons were superbly restrained and stood back during the key moments that are being talked of today. Sarkozy, with his superior experience was clearly aware that Mme Royal was using up her time by her sometimes vituperative outbursts (time was carefully recorded for the spectators on the front of the seating arrangement) and he stored chances to respond fully by having time in hand – the more subtle chess player perhaps.
The picture that emerged is complex. Clearly we are confronted with two very different economic interpretations of France’s current crisis. Mme Royal was eager to right social wrongs but rather confused about how she would do so. (‘Hallelujah’ interjected Sarko at one stage of her wild reasoning about finances). She would stay with the 35-hour week that Sarko partly blames for France’s debt. Her ‘growth’ would come from an adapted employment policy. He wants people to ‘work harder’. It’s going to be tough for him to create employment which would lead to purchasing power and growth – but he’s determined that is the solution.
The nuclear debate had us ‘époustouflé’ (mind-boggled). France is held up to the world as a glowing example of a nation that has its energy needs under control and Ségolène announces that 17% of France’s needs are provided for by the nuclear. Sarkozy (clearly aware that she has got it wrong but not sure of his figure) says ‘About half’ and he bluffed his way about whether he was talking about third or fourth generation reactors (It’s ‘third’). Howls of disbelief greeted this unimaginable muddle. (A Grade 10 student here will tell you the figure is 85%!) Then Ségolène has the effrontery to tell him to do his homework. She is probably doing hers and licking her wounds this morning.
Europe got short shrift though Sarko repeatedly held Blair’s UK, Zapatero’s Spain and ‘Northern countries’ as models of employment, education and social success. He would like to reform the EU Constitution to remove the veto which cripples the organization. For both candidates it was ‘No’ to Turkey though Mme Royal was niggling at Sarko about a process that is already underway.
The real battle was engaged when Ségo launched her ‘colère saine’ (rational anger) over the question of integrating handicapped children into ‘normal’ schools. She accused Sarko of political immorality, of insincere tears in his eyes. He reacted to her pointing finger. For a few minutes the atmosphere was charged. ‘If you claim you haven’t lost your temper now, I wonder what it is like when you do!
Today it seems evident that the French are going to vote according to their political conviction. Even the young, who may be faced with employment problems, violence in school, housing issues and even potential pension issues, are responding positively to the calm, rational and coherent Sarkozy position. The convinced socialists will take the risk of a new departure, ‘a sixth republic’ with Ségolène. However, M LePen threw his spanner into the works last week by prompting massive abstention – a reaction which seems negative and unfair when there is such exemplary interest in and enthusiasm for democracy in today’s France.