Thursday, May 3, 2012

French election: It’s got very bloody in the Francois Hollande-Nicolas Sarkozy slugfest

The French presidential election has turned ugly, as Nicolas Sarkozy battles to fend off Francois Hollande.
Hardened image: one casualty of the bruising French presidential debate was Francois Hollande's reputation as a nice guy - It’s got very bloody in the Francoise Hollande-Nicolas Sarkozy slugfest
Hardened image: one casualty of the bruising French presidential debate was Francois Hollande's reputation as a nice guy Photo: AFP/Getty Images
It may have been more regulated than a Kabuki theatre performance – a set number of cameras, of arc lights on the candidates’ carefully powdered faces, of reaction shots – but in the end, Wednesday night’s French presidential debate was a slugfest.

Three days before the second round of the election, in their single TV discussion, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande went at one another hammer and tongs for three hours, trading invective and the occasional insult with an acrimony not seen in French politics since the 1930s. “Liar!” the candidates called one another; and “slanderer”, “dunce”, “joker”.

That was even before you took in the rolled eyes, the nervous twitches, the role-play. “You’re not assigning and grading essays this time,” Sarkozy told Hollande, a former economics professor at Sciences Po – a school that flunked the French president 35 years ago. The Socialist contender kept interrupting the man he spent the whole campaign calling “the outgoing president”. “You’re lying!” he said. “Answer me on this. Answer me. Will you answer me?”

The first casualty of the debate, it must be said, was François Hollande’s reputation as a nice guy. In the end, his camp – and most Paris establishment pundits – exulted. Their man had bloodied Sarkozy’s nose. All Hollande needed was to preserve his comfortable lead.

Nicolas Sarkozy, however, had carefully calibrated his performance – in stark contrast to the past five years, during which he has mostly failed to do exactly that. Having ruthlessly analysed what the French dislike in him, Sarkozy decided that the debate was about showing that he could be calm in the face of repeated provocation. On he went, laying out the bleak figures of the world economic crisis and of France’s relatively good standing in the eurozone under his stewardship. Every now and then, Sarkozy jabbed at Hollande – the name of Dominique Strauss-Kahn was lobbed in the last half hour, after Hollande had accused his opponent of dodgy party fundraising.

You could not have imagined the aloof, imperial François Mitterrand, whom Hollande served as economic aide in the 1980s, countenancing any hint of a slur. (Dripping with cold contempt, he would have dismissed the offender with a word. We all avoided examining his Vichy past because of such techniques.) Jacques Chirac had his own bluff way of discouraging familiarity. As for De Gaulle, the very idea is unthinkable.

But the increasing polarisation of French political life is changing all this. Over the past five years, France has been seized by an anti-Sarkozy frenzy that can only be compared to the shrill excesses of anti-Thatcherism in Britain, or, more recently, the heyday of Bush Derangement Syndrome in the United States. Sarkozy, to his enraged critics, is vulgar, uncouth, dishonest, unprincipled, and exhibiting Fascist tendencies in his courting of the Front National vote. L’Humanité, the hard-Left daily, last week published a front page pairing him with Marshal Pétain.

 This is bound to leave an even more difficult situation for whoever finds himself in the Élysée Palace on May 7, having to face hard choices and placate nervous financial markets. Neither candidate is in fact a shoo-in. Pundits still asserted yesterday that Sarkozy failed to make a dent in Hollande’s advance. But polls on online news sites, in the night after the debate, told another story. Two thirds on average thought Sarkozy more believable than Hollande: these are the people who no longer dare speak their mind to pollsters. It remains to be seen whether Sarkozy can pull off the greatest comeback in French politics in the past half century, or whether mud does stick in our brave new political landscape, and François Hollande becomes the Fifth Republic’s seventh president.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2012

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