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2 May 2007

Tête à Tête

How France is waiting with baited breath for the showdown between Royal and Sarkozy

By Jean-Jacques Bascoul

Last 23rd April, following the first round, the battle had only just started, as Frederic Niel wrote in his blog. The 2nd May in the evening, 9 o’clock precisely, we’ll have the final showdown between the two contestants.

The TV debate between Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy is important. France is waiting for it with bated breath. In fact, it has been waiting for quite a long time, since 1995, because during the presidential elections of 2002 there was no debate between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen – Jacques Chirac having refused throughout his whole career to deal with the National Front.

Can the debate tonight change the course of things?

Ten days ago, following the first round, the polls said Nicolas Sarkozy would beat Segolene Royal by 46%. And it must be said that for these elections, the polls have got it bang-on and weren’t wrong with the first round (as opposed to 2002, where they hadn’t seen Le Pen’s surprise result).

So, if we trust these modern oracles, Nicolas Sarkozy should clearly win on Sunday.

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In France at least, this is a common feeling, shared for the most part by everyone. Sarkozy’s victory on Suday is inevitable, it’s set in stone, it’s already played out, you can’t stop him, it’s his destiny, ite, messa est… in other words: it’s fate. Even the “bobos” will tell you that Bayrou getting 18% in the first round was a miracle, so a second? Come on, now…

So could the TV debate change the course of things?

These last few days, Segolene Royal has been firing on all cylinders, running the political spectrum from left to right to bridge the gap, covering the great stretch between Jose Bove (she commissioned a study from him), Francois Bayrou (last Saturday, during a TV debate), and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the most centrist of the Socialist Party dinosaurs, who she sees as a perfectly acceptable Prime Minister (as she told Le Monde).

On the other hand, ‘Sarko’ got the big guns out last Sunday at the Paris-Bercy arena – filled to the brim, with many celebrities of note, from Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to national treasure Johnny Hallyday, with judo world champion David Douillet to boot…

Furthermore, he is still as canny with the media, doing particularly well in Corsica, pouring vitriol on terrorists there and saying that with him in power, they would learn some lessons – although, come to think it, wasn’t he the Interior Minister in the current government…?

My conclusion, a few hours before this much-desired debate? From both sides there have been all kinds of manoeuvres, but the divide remains. And anyway, some would say, Sarko will eat Sego for breakfast, and will hammer the final nail in the coffin live on national television!

I’m not so sure.

Indeed, I think that we underestimate Segolene Royal’s talents for this kind of exercise. In 1993, just before the first round of the legislative elections, on TV, she outwitted Sarkozy. And above all, with Segolene Royal, what you can’t underestimate is the strength of her character, her willpower! I think that the strength of her personality will let her lift her game, so to speak, and meet the challenge. Francois Mitterand, with whom she started her career as an advisor and whose ghost has loomed large over this campaign (didn’t she launch her campaign in China, like Mitterand in 1981?), especially valued this trait. He showed it throughout his political career, and many will tell you that it paid ample dividends. And didn’t he say about Francois Bayrou that he would go far, very far, since he had the will to master his stutter (Bayrou even took theatre classes to master the handicap). And now Bayrou has been the first miracle from the first round. Somewhere in the past, Tonton – “Uncle” – had predicted it (“Tonton” was the French’s nickname for Francois Mitterand, since that is what their secret service used to call him).

So why not a second miracle? Especially since this debate offers several novelties: for the first time, it pits a man against a woman; neither of the two participants have ever taken part in a presidential election; they have decidedly-modern private lives (remarriage for Sarkozy, civil partnership for Royal)…

In short plenty of particularities, inequalities, weaknesses on both sides, in both the presidential candidates’ route to this point, which could bring out a surprise. The “Coup de Jarnac”, if you will, acted out by Segolene with the blessing and support of “Tonton”… A quick history lesson: in the 16th century, the “surprise” hits given in fencing were called “Jarnac” hits, in memory of a singular confrontation which opposed Guy de Chabot, lord of Jarnac, one of Francois I’s gentlemen, and Francois de Vivonne, lord of La Chataignerie, on 10 July 1547. La Chataignerie was a skilled fencer and Jarnac seemed to be on the point of losing, when he managed a surprise hit which cut him behind the knee. This expression is now used in France to describe a fatal attack on your opponent, when given in a surprising manner. Let’s close the history lesson by pointing out that Francois Mitterand is a native of Jarnac, and is buried there.

So let’s dream of former president Mitterand, who believed in the strength of the spirit, whispering over Saint Segolene’s shoulder, telling her to press here or there on little Nicolas’s scars or wounds; Nicolas, the big baby with the overdeveloped ego, loved by the masses but who dreamt of being loved for what he is, and who sometimes overdoes it, gets too hammy…

So, will Sego push Sarko into error? I think so. We’ll know soon…

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