I watched the French presidential debate last night on France24 and all I can say is, wow! Very different from a US presidential debate. The candidates directly faced each other and it got very heated and personal, with Sego calling Sarko “immoral” and Sarko saying Sego was unhinged and hysterical. I could have done without the personal nastiness but all in all I found it much more informative and substantive than a US debate.
As I have written about before, socialist candidate Segolene Royal really needed to stress two things in this debate to close the gap between her and her opponent, conservative Nikolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy has been party of the ruling conservative government of Jacques Chirac of the past five years, which isn’t terribly popular in France because the administration didn’t really do much while it was in power and presided over a period of great economic and social unrest. Sarkozy has been trying to run as an ‘outsider,’ and Segolene needed to remind voters that he has been part of the current government as Interior Minister and presided over many of the failed policies. She also needed to purposefully get him riled up, so he would play into the image French voters have of him as a brutal and arrogant tyrant. I don’t think she was successful in either.
In response to her bringing up the failures of the administration he was a part of, he took responsibility and said he shares in the blame. And despite her consistently aggressive approach, she failed to get him unhinged except for one point about an hour into the debate when he raised his voice to accuse her of being unhinged, saying:
"Calm down. Don't point your finger at me like that. I don't know why Ms Royal, usually so calm, has lost her nerve...You have shown how easily you get angry. But to be president of the republic carries heavy responsibilities."
Segolene shot back, “"Not when there is injustice. There is some anger that is perfectly healthy."
Segolene didn’t seem nervous or unhinged to me, but just very aggressive. She kept interrupting not only Sarkozy but also the moderators as well, even at one point saying to one of them who was trying to move the debate along, “Let me finish!” I don’t think telling the moderator of a debate to shut up is such a good strategy.
Me and my friend Dan in DC were watching the debate at the same time and we both thought Segolene had blown it. Rather than making Sarkozy appear nasty and aggressive, she was the one who came off that way. But this morning, reading the French papers, that doesn’t appear to be the reaction of the French public. The verdict seems to be that there was no clear winner, but Segolene could still pick up the percentage she needs based on her performance during the debate, especially is she gets the endorsement of Bayrou, the centrist candidate eliminated in the 1st round of voting, today.
Personally I’m glad I don’t have to vote in this election because I have no idea who I would vote for. My heart wants to support Segolene, but my head wants to support Sarkozy. During the debate, Sarkozy seemed to be more in control, more in command of the facts, while Segolene almost seemed to be rambling and really off topic. But at the same time, my political orientation is traditionally left, so the idea of supporting a conservative candidate is not so appealing to me. Plus, I really like Segolene personally and am excited by the prospect of having her be the first leftist female leader of a G8 country. In terms of foreign affairs, I think she would be a valuable voice in the ‘team’ of G8 countries and the UN security council vote. In other words, her overall political orientation is what attracts me to her. Plus, she is very unfriendly toward US hegemony, whereas the perception of Sarkozy is that he would be buddy-buddy with George W (although it is debatable whether this perception, based on some comments he made during a visit to the US a few years ago, is in fact accurate).
But in terms of specifics, I find myself much more in line with Sarkozy’s plans. He wants to do away with the 35-hour work week, which France mandated in a law signed in 1997. Basically employers get “taxed” (fined really) if they make an employee work more than 35 hours a week. The idea behind the law was not only to improve the quality of life but also to make employers hire new people to fill the gap, to fix France’s growing unemployment problem. But it didn’t work. Unemployment is still growing, and the main result has been multinationals are hesitant to hire or set up locations in France because they would be held to this number. France is the only country in the world that mandates that people can’t work more than 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. Personally for me it’s very frustrating because it’s difficult for me to get ahold of sources in France, it seems as if they’re never in the office. Sarkozy would get rid of the law, Sego would keep it.
Sarkozy is adamantly opposed to Turkey’s entrance into the EU, arguing that those who are advocating it (namely, the US) want the EU to only be a free-trade zone. For those who want the EU to be a political entity, Sarkozy argued in the debate, it is important to keep Turkey out, because of its dramatic cultural differences, its geographic difference (Asia minor is not part of Europe), its shoddy record on human rights, its growing internal conflict between secularists and Islamists (which could lead to civil war), and its proximity to a dangerous, volatile part of the world.
In general most things that Segolene said I either completely disagreed with or couldn’t make sense out of. But when Sarkozy spoke I found myself nodding. Sarkozy being elected will tear the country apart. He wants to change France so drastically, I’m not sure if the country can handle it. But he may just be the medicine France needs to make it relevant in the 21st century, and in the long run, to reform Europe as a whole to fix the problems that have been dogging it for so long.
So whoever wins on Sunday, I’ll be happy I guess. I love Segolene and would be thrilled to see her elected, but I think that in the short-term Sarkozy may be the best thing for France. This election has challenged a lot of my pre-conceived notions about where I stand on the political spectrum. Obviously the political spectrum in Europe is far to the left of the spectrum in the US. A conservative in Europe would be a Democrat in America. I’m finding that in Europe I’m quite a centrist, which has been quite surprising to me. I find myself admiring Angela Merkel, and growing increasingly skeptical of leaders like Zapatero in Spain and Prodi in Italy. I think they're capable and interesting leaders, but I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t a better way for Europe that this traditional socialist-conservative divide. There has to be a way to maintain the admirable labor and human rights system of Europe while at the same time making sure it stays competitive and relevant in the 21st century. I think it’s going to take some drastic new thinking though, and I’m just not sure that European socialists are thinking that way. They’re starting to seem like the proverbial ‘old guard’ that resists change.
But, I’m still learning and figuring the political system here out. The advantage of being an outsider is that I can take a dispassionate look at these things. After all, I don’t have a vote to cast!