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France’s telepolitics: showbiz , populism, reality

Patrice de Beer
1 April 2007

In his latest book, Le capitalisme des héritiers: La crise française du travail, French economist Thomas Philippon, professor of finance at the Stern School of Business, New York University, explains the weakness of the French economy by its conservative managerial methods which promote its leaders, not because of their skills or creativity, but through the social reproduction of a small, closed, almost incestuous elite.

Philippon's argument could be applied to France's political leadership whose recruitment has privileged the sons - and now daughters - of the Republican elite or those who have climbed the steep ladder of Republican elitism by graduating from top grandes ecoles, most of all the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (National School of Administration / Ena). Among these Ena graduates are (from left to right) socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, the daughter of an army officer; her partner and head of the Parti Socialiste (PS), François Hollande; departing president and prime minister, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin; as well as former president and prime ministers Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Alain Juppé and Lionel Jospin (see "France's enarchy", 29 November 2005).

Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of the rightwing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement / UMP) who left the interior ministry on 26 March 2007 to focus on his presidential campaign, trained as a lawyer, and is not an Ena graduate. But he has close links to the business community, both on his account and through his family; his brother was recently a candidate to become the head of le Mouvement des Entreprises de France (Medef), the French employers' federation.

Elites, people, media

France still subscribes to the Republican motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. But its traditional elites have lost most of their credibility thanks to their dismal failure to cope with the economic and social problems of a French society battered by the aftershocks of globalisation, where new figures are shaking the leadership of the main political parties. In response, the elites - and this is certainly true of both Royal and Sarkozy - have often attempted to turn to populism to retain disaffected voters.

But this time, the Sarko-Ségo duel has not followed the script. Both candidates have been shaken by the sudden appearance of centrist candidate François Bayrou (see "François Bayrou, the extreme centre's champion", 12 March 2007), a former teacher and the son of a farmer whose "third man" campaign threatens to overtake one of the duet in a contest where only the two leading candidates on 22 April can qualify for the second round on 6 May 2007.

The French media, which had planned their coverage of the campaign as a circulation-boosting left vs right duel, have also been wrong-footed. They earlier devoted most of their coverage to Royal and Sarkozy (more favourably) to the latter, but were unable to foresee Bayrou's sudden rise, from 6% to over 20% in the space of just two months. Nor did they anticipate that this quiet man would be able to boost his maverick image by skilfully playing on the public's distrust of the media. A good example is the way that Bayrou took advantage of a primetime appearance on the most popular channel, TF1 (which belongs to the public-works giant Bouygues) to lambast the "intimate" relationship between business interests dependent on state contracts and to promise that if elected he would separate political, economic and media powers.

If there is an example of this "intimacy", it is surely Nicolas Sarkozy himself. He benefited in 2006 from massive media coverage which helped him to overtake his chief rivals in the polls: Royal, President Chirac and prime minister Villepin. His close relations with "heirs" from this business-media world helped. These include Martin Bouygues, whose father Francis founded the group and took over TF1 when Chirac privatised it; Arnaud Lagardère, son of plane and weapons manufacturer Jean-Luc, head of the media group Hachette (which owns the magazine Paris Match), major shareholder of the prestigious daily Le Monde as well as of Matra and Eads, Airbus maker; and Serge Dassault, son of aeroplane maker Marcel, owner of conservative daily Le Figaro and an UMP senator.

In 2006, Alain Genestar, the editor of Paris-Match was fired for having published in August 2005 a front-page photo of Cecilia Sarkozy with her then lover, allegedly at the request of Sarkozy; while the name of his own then lover, a journalist, was never printed in France. Neither has any media outlet mentioned the fact that this tough on immigration candidate is himself the son of foreign-born (Hungarian/Greek) parents and thus "less French" than many suburban "blacks & beurs" (Arabs) youth he wants to "wipe out".

Now, Cecilia Sarkozy is back home and campaigning to become the next first lady. "Sarko", even as he is at the centre of media reporting of his campaign, has not shunned any of these press tycoons; though he is said to have threatened that, if elected, he would fire the heads of the public regional channel France 3 because he did not like their coverage.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
(November 2005)

"France's immigration myths"
(9 February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France"
(March 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis"
(April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"Indigènes: enlarging France's history"
(October 2006)

"Ségolène Royal: the power of difference"
(November 2006)

"French politics: where extremes meet"
(4 December 2006)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate"
(20 December 2006)

"France's immigration politics"
(12 February 2006)

"Why is the left so gauche? "
(26 February 2007)

"François Bayrou, the extreme centre's champion"
(12 March 2007)

A public-opinion democracy

Yet the hyped role played by the media in politics and elections has engulfed France, pushing appearance ahead of substance, and both celebrities and Monsieur tout le monde (Mr Everybody) ahead of intellectual figures. In Le Monde, Lawrence D Kritzman of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire compared the French campaign to an "American campaign, over-influenced by opinion polls. There are no more great speeches or debates about the nature of democracy; this is a showbiz election, where ideas matter less than posturing for advertisers.

In this French "public-opinion democracy", the role of the media has become paramount. The by-product is a competition between candidates - Royal, Sarkozy, Bayrou and the extreme-right Jean-Marie Le Pen - whose political stature is far less impressive than that of illustrious predecessors such as Charles de Gaulle, Jean Monnet (the "father" of Europe), or Francois Mitterrand. The debate between candidates over political platforms and their philosophical underpinnings has become far less important than audience ratings; political far-sightedness less required gurus than media calculation. No direct political exchange between the candidates has been organised (for which every major candidate blames the others); in primetime programmes, journalists, intellectuals or experts have been replaced by TV viewers drawn by lot. As Ségolène Royal says: in her "participative democracy" all citizens are experts.

So, the main TV programmes where the candidates can express their views look like TV games: in TF1's J'ai une question à vous poser ("I've got a question for you") or France 2's A vous de juger ("You are the judge"), "real people" pose to the candidate a question about their daily problems, while the presenter merely passes the microphone from one to the other. As a result, politicians look "closer" to "real problems", more "caring", by identifying themselves with their voters.

At the same time, they transform themselves from battle-hardened leaders to touchy-feely micro-managers. Any questions on major issues like foreign affairs, defence policy or Europe (amazingly absent from the French debate at the very moment the European Union is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary) are sidestepped in favour of emotion. The result is that foreign policy platforms dismally lack any great vision for a nation which proclaims herself as an example to the rest of the world, or that reflect her role as a nuclear country and a member of the United Nations' "permanent five".

Reality's revenge

The first French politician to appear in a showbiz programme was François Mitterrand in 1985; but he also was a statesman. Now these TV products seem to have overtaken real political programmes, which have gradually disappeared from primetime, if not from TV screens altogether, thanks to the dictatorship of audience ratings. Politicians now appear on talk shows to read out the news or even a press review, buzz the presenter (as in a quiz show) when they want to say something, or talk irresponsibly (as no expert is there to contradict them or remind them of basic facts; a radio reporter who interviewed Royal and Sarkozy on the number of French nuclear submarines found that neither knew the exact numbers)!

Yet, one day, reality will take its revenge on reality shows. George W Bush almost emptied his 2000 presidential campaign of any reference to foreign affairs; he didn't have much to say to voters he assumed to be uninterested in an outside world he himself had hardly visited. Less than nine months after he entered the White House, 9/11 struck by surprise at the heart of America. The United States as well as her allies and the rest of the world have suffered and will probably suffer for years from the crassness, arrogance and ideological blinkers which have defined US diplomacy since the beginning of the third millennium.

The American case shows that the combination of telepolitics and retreat from the world is more than a French phenomenon. It's the substance, stupid!

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