“So who won it?” asked abruptly the BBC World Service journalist minutes after the end of yesterday’s debate. Sitting on the stairs of a big hotel in South London where I watched the televised encounter (the reception hall was too noisy to make the phone interview), I talked the political science talk: Nicolas Sarkozy failed to land the killer blow, so in the worst case scenario it is a draw, blah, blah, blah. This diary does not propose a scientific assessment of the campaign. So let me phrase it as I saw it: I think Hollande emphatically beat Sarkozy. Now if you really want to know what I think deep down, let me put it the Jean-Luc Mélenchon no-waffle way: “Hollande pulverised Sarkozy”.
Tony Montana vs François Mitterrand. Source for both images: Wikipedia. Public Domain.
Yes, Sarkozy the “great performer”, the “fierce debater” (according to mainstream media), pulled no punches throughout this 3-hour long debate. Worse, he looked nervous, unconvincing, angry, and, at times, frankly scary. About 100 people had gathered in the room to watch the debate, I was sitting next to the French Consul in London. (We are no pals, it was just a coincidence.) He dozed off most of the debate. When he finally woke up toward the end, he looked downbeat and sorry. He turned to me and said: “Sarkozy, what a shame! In 2007, there was so much freshness, so much dynamism…” “… And now, he looks like a cornered rabbit”, I dryly replied to him. The Consul looked deeply offended and ostensibly turned his head in the opposite direction.
Hollande surprised me. I knew that he would stand his ground and be a decent performer. He was more decent yesterday: combative, precise, projecting an image of calmness and authority. He ticked all the boxes to come across as “presidential material”. The British media have been unfavourably comparing Hollande to Gordon Brown. “Flamby” is allegedly dull and “lacks charisma”. Hollande may be a bit dull, but he is more articulate and witty than the former British prime minister. What is more, he has never talked Brown’s pro-financial market non-sense. Anyway, who would like another Tony Blair in 2012? The French are not that stupid, eh? Actually they were foolish enough to elect a French Thatcher thirty years late.
Sarkozy went for a fight, but it seems that there was no real drive, no real purpose to it. He looked like he no longer believed in his victory and of course that made him irritable. He accused Hollande several times of “lying” as the pair tussled over economic figures. Hollande always had the last word. “It’s a lie, it’s a lie, it’s a lie”, Sarkozy said at one point. “I’ll take that as a complement coming from you”, Hollande shot back. On Europe, the Socialist accused the right-wing candidate of failing to stand up to Angela Merkel: “You didn’t compromise with Germany, you failed to hold your own”, Hollande said. He promised to “re-orient Europe towards growth”, if he was elected. If he is true to his words, Hollande could become an unexpected European hero. On education, Sarkozy criticised Hollande’s “spending madness”. Hollande responded that he wanted to “protect the children of the republic” whereas Sarkozy “protect[s] the most privileged”.
There was an involuntary comical moment. The incumbent president gravely remarked that France was the most heavily taxed country in Europe. Looking Sarkozy in the eyes, Hollande almost whispered back: “Who has been running the country for the past ten years, Mr Sarkozy?” The crowd was amused. Then came the killer blow (Yes, I acknowledge I did not tell the truth to my BBC interviewer). Nicolas Sarkozy at his most agitated raised his tone: “Mr Hollande, you’re a little slanderer!” The crowd burst out laughing. That was the moment the Consul woke up. By the end of the debate, Sarkozy was a nervous wreck, full of tics, looking furious. He tried one last infamous attack: “You want to give the right to vote to non-EU immigrants at local elections. This will create the conditions of a communitarian vote which is contrary to the republican tradition”. Hollande looked shocked: “Are you implying that all immigrants are Muslims? Anyway how can you assume that Muslims will vote along ethnic or religious lines?” I very much doubt that this will get Sarkozy many National Front votes. It was infamous of him to play the race/religious card to divide and scare the population in an attempt to secure a few more votes.
The key moment of the debate was Hollande’s anaphora: a three-minute peroration with all sentences starting with “I, president…I will, etc.” repeated 16 times! The rhetorical device was rather impressive. The contents were even better. If elected, Hollande promised to be an anti-Sarkozy: the judiciary and the media will be protected from the encroachment of political power; the president will be prosecuted if there is evidence that he broke the law before or during his time in office, etc. This was a sweet revenge for the past five years and a moment of happiness for everyone on the left in France.
While I was watching one of the best presidential debates of the past 30 years, my mind could not help wandering around: on the right, I imagined a cantankerous Nicolas Montana and on the left, François Mitterrand, the man of “quiet strength”.