by Ramin Mazaheri
Unlike most Western countries, French politicians do not really do personal attacks. That sounds surprising, but they don’t even criticize each other’s programs with virulence.
It’s “inelegant” or “bad form.” But perhaps this is why the French can debate politics over a four-hour Sunday meal?
Ultimately, this is poseur nonsense that has nothing do with the brutally harsh and immediate reality of political platforms and decisions.
That’s why tonight’s debate between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron was such a surprise: This was, by French standards, total chaos. From start to finish there were constant interruptions, low blows, accusations of defamation and two presenters who were basically mute in shock and horror.
The New York Times called it “vicious” and I actually agree with them for a change. I assumed that the French debate would remain…French. But this was American-style politics.
Well…not that bad. Macron called Le Pen a “parasite” and Le Pen suggested Macron had offshore bank accounts, but nobody repeatedly called the other “crooked” (i.e. corrupt) or said the other should be in jail.
The problem is that this not at all what Le Pen needed to reverse an 18% difference in the polls 4 days before the vote (oof, the situation has really become that bad!).
Le Pen took the bait: she proved that she doesn’t have sufficient style to be president of the French.
That’s fatal, because it can be enough to win over here: In 2012 Francois Hollande famously hypnotized France into believing he was presidential through the rhetorical use of the “anaphora”. I don’t even have to translate it for you to grasp what it is:
« Moi, président de la République, je ne serai pas le chef de la majorité, je ne recevrai pas les parlementaires de la majorité à l’Élysée. Moi, président de la République, je ne traiterai pas mon Premier ministre de collaborateur. Moi, président de la République, je… »
He said that phrase 15 times in a row, lasting 3 consecutive minutes.
That’s when the French said to themselves about “Mr. Normal”: “This guy sounds like he can be president.” Hey – advertising works! I repeat: advertising works!
Hollande was dead serious during those 3 minutes; Le Pen always seemed to be playing to the gallery. She repeatedly checked the reaction of the audience – just two presenters – to see if her latest joke or quip scored with them.
For example, Le Pen made a great witticism to the effect that that she would earmark her tax cuts for the average French person…to keep them out of Macron’s bank account. Even Macron smiled and had to restrain a laugh.
And the immediate gratification of that approval was enough to make Le Pen beam…and totally forget that what she said was deadly serious in its societal consequences.
Is Le Pen a committed, caring Castro or another needy actor posing as a politician? Why should she care for a pat on the head from Jean-Marie, I mean Emmanuel? Are there both daddy and mommy issues in this election, with 39-year old Macron and his 64-year old wife?
Regardless, by the end of the debate Macron probably had many agreeing with him that it was not appropriate to joke about the state of France.
Le Pen is great at playing the comedic clown, but she failed to show the sad, dramatic side of her anti-austerity arguments.
She lacked presidential gravitas, and this is a candidate who was disparaged as a rabid racist incapable of running a country. That played great for Trump in America but France is not America – there is no historical sympathy for the “frontier loon” personality here.
Trump was also smart enough to settle down for their 3 debates.
Le Pen felt she won, even though she lost
Online polls immediately afterward gave Macron the victory by more than a 2 to 1 margin.
But in all honesty, Le Pen probably viewed the debate as a victory before it even started – just getting there was good enough for her. The National Front has been legitimized and a score of just 39% is more than double her father’s 18% in 2002.
The National Front will probably actually win some power in France – they currently hold just 0.4% of all elected offices. You can say all you want about their outsized cultural power, but they truly cannot be blamed for any problems caused by poor governance.
About 20 minutes from the end it seemed like Le Pen gave up – she started making non-stop jokes and not taking things seriously. Her tone changed, and she even seemed to admit that she wasn’t going to win on May 7. She couldn’t even keep her mouth shut during Macron’s closing remarks, which made her final impression definitely unpresidential.
However, Le Pen really tried to be serious in the first 30 minutes, but she tried in a way that simply doesn’t play to French expectations, and they are the ones voting.
What was she guilty of trying to do? Simply to call out Macron on…his record in office. So, in an important way Le Pen’s plan of attack was handicapped from the beginning because, as I wrote, the French don’t really do attacks on one’s record. Macron repeatedly interrupted her to stop talking about the past and to focus on the future, and the moderators let it slide.
Frankly, this made Macron look not just rude and defensive but left him open to charges of being latently sexist – would have barged in on her talking points so often if he was debating a man? He did not come off well in the first half hour, when Le Pen was the most focused.
Regarding the content of the debate: I’ve said it before and I’ll write it again – if your antenna is tuned for ideas which are anti-capitalist, pro-democracy, pro-workers’ rights, anti-globalization, pro-sovereignty – Le Pen was the candidate that you preferred in the debate.
She had plenty of good facts, lines and accusations, but I’m not going to get into them because it’s 3:30 am here and I’m still in the office. The fact is, when you have just a single presidential debate held only 4 days before the vote…we all already know what their ideas are.
The system was again geared up to support Macron: Le Pen needed more time to focus her attacks and the people needed more time to really consider the effects of Macron’s economic, which he only unveiled seven weeks before the first round vote. French citizens deserve more than just two weeks to really scrutinize the final two candidates….
Macron is Hillary minus the pantsuit
Macron was repeatedly condescending, patronizing and playing the role of teacher to the ignorant.
It’s jarring to see someone under 40 act like that but, more importantly, it shows how deeply ingrained is his belief in the technocratism that is the justification for EU austerity: only an enlightened Brahmin like Macron has the necessary training to lead, and it’s our fault for not learning Sanskrit.
Unfortunately for Macron, many of us know that the “social sciences” are not sciences at all: there is no thesis or objective in any social science which cannot be explained in lay terms in less than 3 minutes. If we need more than that, you’re just trying to fool us.
Macron is most effective when he plays the modern politician: Blunting your passion for life, politics and what is right with details. Boring you to death while giving the impression he really knows what he is talking about. Hillary was great at this.
The problem is that this technocratic view ignores the fact that ideology/morality/philosophy and political decisions simply cannot be separated. There is no one correct way to run an economy, or a village, or a foreign policy: it all depends on your objectives, and your objectives are governed by your ideology/morality/philosophy, whatever the hell the damned numbers are.
Macron effectively attacked Le Pen for being xenophobic – no way to defend against that truth – but his other main line was that she “has no project”. But that’s simply untrue – Frexit, euro changes, leaving NATO, etc. are hugely substantial intellectually.
What Macron was really trying to say with these attacks is that all of these things – which are supported by a huge minority/small majority in France – can never be admitted by the establishment as actually being possible.
For example: To the average mainstream scribe, Macron will sure have scored major points on Le Pen’s brand-new plan to have both a euro AND a franc – the former for international commerce and the latter for domestic commerce. This is something which her new running-mate/future prime minister Nicolas Dupont-Aignan appeared to insist on in return for his support.
It was very easy for Macron to pick this proposal apart: There are indeed many questions and holes.
But here’s the thing: What Le Pen is offering is indeed totally new, and that means that – of course – there will be questions. This is uncharted territory; there are unknowns; it is scary in certain aspects; it’s revolutionary.
That doesn’t make it bad, wrong or incapable of succeeding.
What’s important is that at the base of Macron’s attacks is: There Is No Alternative to the status quo. Macron is right to ask criticize the plan, but it does not mean that what he is offering is better.
It is not, and the French people know it.
In my work for Press TV, earlier this week I had to interview 10 people on the street on a handful of questions, and one was: “Why is France so divided on the EU?”
I heard the same answer repeatedly: “The EU has not fulfilled the promises it made.” I.e., life is worse than before the EU and the euro. This is borne out by numerous important econometrics, and it is especially true since the 2008 financial crisis which was manipulated to cannibalize the average person and their rights.
It was not surprising that the debate organizers, the state, pushed the most important issue back into the 2nd hour; the issue that has the largest ramifications both domestically and internationally – the future of Europe.
It came after 34 minutes of terrorism (and Islamophobia).
It’s hard not to leave the office tonight without dealing with the fact that a Macron victory is about 99% sure to happen.
Even though his mouth was flecked with foam half the night like some old man (expect many jokes about that), as he defended globalization, Brussels and capitalism and denied being a part of the previous government and the mainstream establishment, the French will still view him as less extremist than Le Pen.
Economically, Macron is the extremist. And, as Le Pen said, he is a “European extremist” on the subject of sovereignty.
The French will continue to say that Le Pen is too much of a racist.
Well, consider this well: Two days ago the Macron camp tweeted that the country’s only Islamophobia watchdog was “in danger” of being closed.
When the group – the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) – pressed for clarification, the Macron camp did not back down. After all, they have targeted the CCIF before.
In my work with Iran’s Press TV I have taken the time to speak with the CCIF for years: What they do is field calls and file legal challenges when women get beat up for wearing the hejab, when Muslims are fired unfairly, when Muslims are denied entry into places, when mosques are desecrated. They simply defend the rights of an oppressed minority because the French justice system repeatedly looks the other way. There is nothing extremist about any of this.
But it was Macron, not Le Pen, who has targeted this group.
This, sadly, exemplified a point I have said for months, and which gives me great personal vindication for openly supporting Le Pen despite being a true leftist communist:
All of France’s political parties are racist, full stop. Don’t believe that by voting Macron you are avoiding xenophobia. Attacking the CCIF is more, timely proof of this sad fact.
But the French are simply not seeing this in large enough numbers. A lot of that is due to the extremely heavy baggage caused by the repugnant history of the National Front and Marine L e Pen.
And the French just don’t see that capitalism is worse than racism; and that capitalism creates racism.
France – home of liberty, equality and an 18-month state of emergency – is simply in too right-wing a mood to take a chance like voters in the UK and the US. They will pick “Hollande Junior” even though Hollande was their most unpopular president ever.
But it really doesn’t help that Marine Le Pen is a terrible candidate who chose to play the clown instead of the president.
What would I have done instead? Me, president of the republic, I ….
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television.