Via BFM TV - There were so many candidates they didn't all fit in the close-up frame.
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4 things we learned from the second French presidential debate

Everyone wants to be an outsider.

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 writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game