Sensing that things might get out of hand, the journalists chairing the debate stressed the need for “Republican courtesy.” That injunction was blown apartby Jim Wolfreys / April 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
The French presidential election debate held on 4th April was unprecedented: never before have all candidates for the post shared a platform. The five frontrunners were joined by two Trotskyists and four maverick right-wingers, including veteran conspiracy theorist Jacques Cheminade, whose programme includes plans to industrialise the moon.
The previous debate of this extraordinary campaign, in March, involved only the five main contenders. It had confirmed the basic dynamic of the campaign so far. Heading the field are two apparent “outsiders,” extreme right-winger Marine Le Pen and technocratic apostle of the French “third way,” Emmanuel Macron. The candidates of the two major parties, Socialist Benoît Hamon and Les Républicains’ François Fillon, are in trouble. Hamon has been fatally damaged by defections to Macron. Fillon, perhaps the most obstinate candidate in electoral history, is persistently undermined by corruption allegations. The winner of the March debate proved to be radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose authority and grasp of detail triggered a dynamic which has seen him begin to challenge Fillon for third place.
The tone for the 4th April debate was set before it even got underway. Factory worker Philippe Poutou of the New Anti-Capitalist Party refused to take part in the group photo. Sensing that things might get out of hand, the journalists chairing the debate stressed the need for “Republican courtesy,” an injunction that Poutou was to blow apart. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt he spoke with nonchalant truculence, addressing Fillon and Le Pen by their surnames. Fillon was derided for preaching the need for austerity while his hands were “in the till taking public money.” Turning to Le Pen, Poutou ridiculed her “anti-system” credentials. The system had granted her parliamentary immunity in regards to an investigation into allegations of misusing EU funds. As Le Pen tried to interject, Poutou’s quick-fire response left her speechless: “When we’re summoned by the police, we don’t have workers’ immunity.” The barb broke the audience’s vow of silence and brought the evening’s only moment of applause, briefly puncturing the illusion that Le Pen could somehow represent the concerns of working people.
Le Pen did not have a good night. Attacked from the left by Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte Ouvrière, her “intelligent protectionism” was outflanked by the hardline sovereigntists’ rhetoric on “financial dictatorship” and “Frexit,” a question she would put to a referendum. She was also challenged on her own terrain by Mélenchon, who vowed to scrap an EU directive on “posted” workers, sent to work in France by foreign firms whose social security contributions are paid in their home country, making them potentially cheaper to French employers. Le Pen, Mélenchon was at pains to point out, had abstained on the directive. When Le Pen defended town halls that displayed nativity scenes at Christmas, he posed as the true defender of French secular values, thundering, “Leave us alone with your religious issues!” Central to Mélenchon’s campaign is his attempt to assert a “universal” Republican nationalism as the authentic alternative to Le Pen’s racist authoritarianism.
Polls put Mélenchon narrowly ahead of Macron as the night’s most convincing performer with Le Pen trailing behind Fillon. Hamon continues to be eclipsed by the frontrunners. Macron remains a curious presence in the debates, his sober assurance on technical detail giving way to tremulous indignation on social issues, for the most part strategically directed against Le Pen. There remains an air of confection about his campaign. A line aimed at Le Pen, “Nationalism is war!”, was taken from a speech by François Mitterrand, possibly to reassure centre-left voters baulking at his passion for deregulated competition. The impression given is one of calculation, that he is the composite creation of a highly professional focus group, alluding to De Gaulle or Mitterrand in the way that a finely tuned marketing operation can be knowingly referential, to the point of pastiche. At some point the bubble will burst.
Above all the debate underlined a profound crisis of politics and institutions. This was reflected in the nature of its social and economic preoccupations and in the solutions proposed, from the use of referenda to reverse unpopular decisions (like the labour reforms pushed through by decree under François Hollande) to calls for a new constitution. The presence of all eleven candidates, and the fastidious way that their right to equal time was observed, appeared symptomatic of a need to show that democracy really was functioning and must be seen to be doing so. The debate confirmed that the fall-out from the financial collapse of 2008 is emphatically present in this campaign in a manner rarely seen in the 2012 contest. This is what underpins the polarisation and fragmentation of the election, and continues to make it the most volatile and unpredictable of modern times.