4 things we learned from the second French presidential debate

Everyone wants to be an outsider.

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The format of the political debate died yesterday. Or maybe three weeks ago; I can’t be sure.

The 11 candidates for the French presidency debated last night on live TV for a never-ending four hours. You thought there were five? Centrist Macron, hard-right Le Pen, Conservative Fillon, Socialist Hamon and hard-left Mélenchon, right? Well, there are just the “main” candidates, polling at 10 per cent of the vote or more. After complaining that they weren’t invited to the first debate, the “marginal” candidates, who all poll between 0 and 5 per cent, were allowed to take part this time.

So it all looked a bit like the Hunger Games – the debate was planned to last for 3.30 hours, with 11 candidates, each allowed 17 minutes to speak overall.


Via BFM TV - May the odds be ever in your favour.

It lasted four hours. If this crazy French presidential campaign has taught us only one thing, it is that a four-hour debate is too long. Here is what we learned from watching it, so you don't have to...

1. There were (real) outsiders

One could argue that it is only fair and democratic that all presidential candidates get the same chance to gain campaign coverage. The “marginal” candidates are not only marginal in the polls – they also often are political outsiders. Some hold a “normal” job, like car industry worker Philippe Poutou (polling at 1 per cent) and high school teacher Nathalie Arthaud (polling at 0.5 per cent). Others stressed how close they are to the people – François Asselineau (0.5 per cent) is an “unrepentent globe-trotter”, while Jean Lassalle entertained the audience with his very marked southern accent. Poutou, who looked the outsider part with his t-shirt and jeans, even refused to pose on the group photo. And then there’s Jacques Cheminade (0.5 per cent), who has been running since 1995 and is planning to colonise Mars.

2. But everyone wants to be an outsider

Problem: among the five “main” candidates, everyone wants to be an outsider, too. From the nationalist hero (Le Pen) to the anti-capitalist figure (Mélenchon), all have painted themselves as somewhat “against the system”. When these self-proclaimed outsiders faced marginal candidates with similar narratives, the French public were subjected to an endless fight for the "most outsider" trophy. Hard-left Mélenchon, usually the punchiest, was overshadowed by car worker Poutou’s funny-turned-cool lack of self-awareness and teacher Arthaud’s repeated calls to “raise salaries” and “take down the banks and employers”. On the right, Le Pen’s usually unchallenged promise to leave the EU was shadowed by Asselineau, who declared his admiration for Brexiteers, declared that he was “the only candidate of Frexit” and would trigger Article 50 right after the election without a referendum (as offered by Le Pen).

3. Everyone loves a scandal

Over four long hours, most of the relief was offered by “marginal” candidate Poutou, who attacked Le Pen and Fillon on their respective fraud accusations and “fake” jobs scandals – something the main candidates almost forgot to do last time. “You’re against Europe, but you’re helping yourself in the EU’s tills!” he told Le Pen, adding “We don’t have worker immunity - when the police summons us, we go!” He commented about Fillon: “He’s talking about debt, but he’s taken public money”, to which Fillon replied by threatening, under his breath, to “foutre un proces” (an untranslatable way of saying “I’m going to bloody sue you”).

4. There’s still one common enemy

If everyone wants to be the outsider, Le Pen is definitely the Common Enemy. Macron accused her of “repeating the same lies for 40 years, the ones your father used to tell”. After she declared that France is “the university of jihad”, Hamon had a go at her, too: “Daesh [Isis], that’s convenient for you, it helps you continue doing your show.” “Will you shut up about religion!” snapped Mélenchon after she once again turned to one of her favourite topics. To all of this, the leader of the National Front responded: “I am politically persecuted.”

The “outsider” who will win France may well find some resonance in another one – Albert Camus’, whose 1942 novel ends on these words: “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my [election] and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.