Debating in French

2:30 AM in Paris 3 May 2007

In anticipation of the Royal-Sarkozy debate, commentators speculated on the unexpected: what might happen to surprise us; will one of the candidates lose his or her composure or, on the contrary, say something so memorable that it could change the course of events.

Every single day for four months we have been hearing that Nicolas Sarkozy is nervous, hot-tempered, impulsive, and liable to erupt at any moment against his own will. At its furthest extremes, the hate campaign against Sarkozy is steeped in anti-Semitic, anti-American poison; in polite circles it is fashionable to talk about his brutality. Ségolène Royal, at the height of fashion, never misses a chance to label her rival and his politics as brutal.

Tonight the two candidates engaged in face to face debate for over two hours. Nicolas Sarkozy was calm, cool, and collected. Relaxed and comfortable, he had perfect control of himself and his language. He addressed every question intelligently, replied clearly and coherently.

Ségolène Royal was nervous and aggressive from the get-go. She attacked, jabbed, taunted. She stared at him with narrowed angry eyes. Her voice was harsh. She spoke through clenched teeth. And, as I expected, before the debate was over, an issue hit her panic button, she lost control and turned spitfire.

That's it, right? That's what everyone was waiting for. Could two rivals in fierce competition handle themselves with dignity in a two hour face to face, or would one of them fall into a trap and explode?

Yes. Except that it was supposed to be Nicolas Sarkozy.

The first media reactions came to us on France 3. The debate after the debate. Four guests for Royal, four for Sarkozy. Two moderators.

Royal was praised by her loyal supporters who had no doubt that she had won the debate. They were honest enough to admit that she did not necessarily win votes, but her performance in the debate was dazzling. She was so deliciously pugnacious. Yes, pugnacious. And when she went into that riff, shouting at Sarkozy for minutes on end, totally out of control, and he told her, calmly, that a president doesn't blow her top, she slammed back, "I am not blowing my top, I am revolted! I have a right to be revolted at what you said! I am angry, I am not blowing my top!" Well, they took her at her word.

Nicolas Sarkozy couldn't fool them, oh no, they could see through his deceptions. Everyone knows how hot-tempered he is. And he just sat there, looking relaxed, speaking calmly, never raising his voice or his hand. To hear them describe it, it was almost too evil. A brutal man like that should at least have the honesty to show his real face.

Naturally, each candidate developed arguments that we have heard before, that we can read in their respective programs. The point of a face to face debate is to allow the opponent to challenge statements as they are made, on the spot, without stumbling or stuttering. Much of what we heard tonight has already been elaborated during the course of the campaign.

There were no surprises on that score. Ségolène Royal cannot focus her thoughts. She cannot give a straight answer to a direct question. Her ideas are strung together like beads, in no particular order. She throws in anecdotal details, adds some heavy emotional seasoning, turns the question into a flattering spotlight on her own person, and just keeps talking until someone, in this case the moderators-Patrick Poivre d'Arvor and Arlette Chabot-politely waves her to the side and stops her long enough to ask another question. On every crucial issue-the 35-hour work week, the admission of Turkey into the EU, reform of the pension system-she flourishes a plume of high principles and then abdicates: the decision will be made after consultation with all parties, after discussion and debate, by referendum, by a flick of the wrist.

When Nicolas Sarkozy confronted her with facts, she hissed. "Don't try that on me. I know your tactics." On many points, it was obvious that she was faking. He has far more experience than she does in the affairs of state. Which is why she endlessly refers to regional government, and all of the miracles she has performed in the region she governs.

Sarkozy's entire campaign is based on a promise of accountability. He has fully developed his thinking on the longstanding problems of France. He has clearly defined a coherent program of proposed solutions. And he has pledged to stand by them, and be judged by his results. While Royal refers to her region, Sarkozy refers to Europe and the world. If Germany, England, Denmark, Ireland, and Spain can have full employment and healthy economies, there is no reason that France should be suffering from stagnation.

Ségolène Royal's campaign is based on herself. In tonight's debate, she could not use her charm. And her anger, for all the praise it might win from her diehard supporters, did not come across as righteous. Faced with Sarkozy's concise thinking, her rambling arguments did not billow, her slogans-gagnant-gagnant, donnant-donnant-fell flat, and she didn't sing her usual tunes with the same conviction she musters when standing in front of ten thousand cheering fans.

Before the debate began, we were informed that Royal and Sarkozy had exchanged a cordial handshake (like Sumo-sans?) in front of the cameras...but the scene would not be shown until the debate had ended. For some unexplained reason the curtain came down and there was no delayed broadcast handshake.

After all the tough questions from unemployment to Iran's nuclear ambitions had been hashed over, the moderators asked the debaters what they thought of each other. It might seem like a silly question. In fact it was quite revealing because Ségolène Royal could not and did not pour out a dose of the anti-Sarko hatred that inspires her voters. She could not say then and there, after viewers had watched them in action for over two hours, that he was such a danger to the nation that even people who didn't like her or her politics should vote for her just to keep him from being president.

Fans being fans, they probably won't hold it against her.

My choice for the best stumping exchange is the China Olympics Boycott issue. Both Royal and Sarkozy deplore the reluctance of the international community to act decisively to stop the massacre of the innocent in Darfur. Royal proposes a boycott of the Chinese Olympics, to punish the Chinese for preventing an international intervention simply to protect their interests in Sudan. Sarkozy asked her why, in that case, she made a high profile visit to China.

Of course he might have asked her why she wanted to be president of France...because, if I'm not mistaken, the French, too, have interests in Sudan.

Will the debate change the figures?. Sarkozy is predicted to win by as much as 53 to 47. If anything, it might convince certain reluctant voters--people who share his analysis, share his solutions, but are inhabited by that vague "Sarkozy is scary"-to vote for the hot-tempered guy who is so clever he can keep his cool.