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France’s second presidential TV debate more surreal than enlightening

Lionel Bonaventure, AFP | French presidential candidates at the second televised debate on BFM TV and CNEWS on April 4, 2017.

The second debate in France’s wild presidential campaign on Tuesday night was touted as unprecedented.


The contest marked the first in French television history to feature every candidate in the race before the pack is pared down to two finalists on April 23.

But nearly four hours later, well after midnight Wednesday Paris time, with all 11 candidates having spoken for about 18 minutes each in an interminable cacophony, it was clear why the enterprise had never been tried. The open contest on the BFM TV and CNEWS networks, while laudable in principle, was absurd in effect with so much on the line. And the top candidates, many of whom have been openly lukewarm about contesting a similar third broadcast on April 20, might be wise to stay away.

The campaign’s first debate, on March 20, had featured only the five frontrunners and been an eminently watchable heavyweight battle. Criticised as undemocratic, that contest at least enjoyed a certain logic. Combined, those five participants -- National Front spitfire Marine Le Pen, independent-centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, embattled conservative François Fillon, hardline Socialist nominee Benoît Hamon and far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon -- are polling at more than 92 percent of the vote.

Tuesday night’s contest added six more hopefuls, five of whom are polling between zero and one percent on voter surveys. The six new contestants were allotted more than half the debate’s speaking time, égalité oblige, drowning out the candidates with a real shot at the prize. Two of those underdogs -- Nathalie Arthaud of Workers’ Struggle and Philippe Poutou of the New Anti-Capitalist Party -- are rival far-left leaders both labelled Trotskyists, suggesting they cannot even agree on Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, never mind French policy.

The so-called “little candidates” came out swinging. “I am a man who is angry against all of these heirs of a financial system who are here and who did not want to take the bull by the horns,” Solidarity and Progress candidate Jacques Cheminade said during his opening remarks. Cheminade scored 0.25 percent (89,545 votes) during his last bid for the French presidency, in 2012.

Polling at or below one percent does tend to make the prospect of being held accountable after winning office a moot point, affording the combative minnows a certain leeway with reality and straw-man proposals that can muddle the debate. Self-styled Frexit candidate François Asselineau pushed Tuesday to deploy Article 50 directly, yanking France out of Europe without bothering to call a referendum; Poutou stumped for disarming the police.

EM video presidential debate

Anti-capitalist autoworker

With only 19 days to go before a vote, most likely on current polling, to see the Europhobic Le Pen and the neophyte independent Macron advance to the May 7 final, radically reshuffling the French political landscape, the stakes are high. But in the end, this night belonged to the race’s minnows. A colourful cast of characters, certainly – one, Jean Lassalle, introduced himself as a former shepherd, while Poutou has a day job as an autoworker at a Ford plant in Bordeaux – but French voters might well have come away feeling they deserved better.

The Trotskyist pair of Poutou and Arthaud delivered some of the evening’s most incisive comments, which says more about the heavyweights’ cautious approach than the iconoclastic communists’ chances of coming from behind to win the Elysée Palace.

Poutou used his 18 minutes of fame to greatest effect when he slammed the race’s scandal-dogged heavyweights, railing against “corrupt politicians, disconnected from reality.” Unshaven, wearing jeans and a longsleeve t-shirt hiked up to his elbows to reveal hirsute forearms, the autoworker politician often sat on the provided stool, his arms crossed, while rivals spoke. “François Fillon, the more we dig, the more we smell corruption, cheating; these are guys who tell us that we need rigour, austerity, when they steal from the coffers,” he charged.

During the first TV debate, Fillon had hardly been troubled by his more mainstream rivals about the fake-jobs scandal that saw him placed under formal investigation over allegations including embezzling public funds. On Tuesday evening, he blithely refused to answer the moderator’s question about the “errors” that have crippled his campaign.

"I refuse to answer journalists who for two and a half months have carried out my trial. People have wanted to silence me, to eliminate me. I am still here,” Fillon said.

Lawsuit threat

But Poutou continued to prod. Near the end of the evening, Fillon outright threatened to sue him. “Oh, oh, oh! I’ll stick a lawsuit on you,” the conservative former prime minister muttered under his breath at the fast-talking communist.

“Then there is Madame Le Pen, too, who steals from the public coffers. For someone who is anti-European, it doesn’t bother her to steal from Europe’s coffers,” Poutou charged at the nationalist leader, facing her own scandals. “The National Front says it is anti-establishment, but protects itself thanks to the establishment’s laws with its parliamentary immunity and refuses police summonses, no problem! When we’re summoned by police, we can’t claim labourer’s immunity; we go,” he said, to applause in the studio.

Arthaud levied her own salvo at Le Pen when she was asked how she would protect France, a target of mass terrorist killings since January 2015. "I can say what I won't do is seize on every attack, every tragedy, to conflate terrorists with migrants, immigrants and Muslims,” she said. “It's what you do all the time, Marine Le Pen and François Fillon,” she blasted.

The debate’s format of successive 90-second candidate monologues afforded only the briefest of transgressive skirmishes, surreally reined in by overzealous moderators. When Le Pen sought to detail how she would extract France from Europe -- the prospect of which has had financial markets on edge for months -- one moderator scolded her. “Briefly! Briefly!” the BFM TV journalist said, pressing to close the segment so she could let Lassalle and Arthaud clock in with their own comments. Viewers had to wait 75 minutes for the first real exchange between the elections’ presumptive finalists, Le Pen and Macron, when the pair traded the briefest of jibes to tar one another’s outsider posturing.

“There is no reason why I should have three fewer minutes than Madame Le Pen!” Asselineau complained as the debate dragged on. And no one dared broach the taboo fact that there would have, in fact, been quite a few good reasons.

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