French Election 2012: Sarkozy vs. Hollande Debate Puts GOP Debates to Shame

Political debates in France are like our very famous cuisine. Beautifully put together, they are taken leisurely, and enjoyed while sitting down to allow for plenty of time for digestion (maybe even a little cognac). Wednesday's presidential debate will start with a light political hors-d’oeuvre – that’s a ‘starter’ for all you unfortunate non-French speakers – before moving on, elegantly, to the political main course. Throughout the evening, both candidates will seek to impale each other on their finely sharpened political swords using logic and skill.

American presidential debates, however, are like New York hot dog stands. Standing on their feet, clamoring, and lots of ‘My wiener is bigger AND better than your wiener' jockeying . In their attempts to appeal to the common ‘Joe’, U.S. presidential candidates are forced to eat eclectic electoral pie on any number of highly-charged, yet ultimately irrelevant issues. American candidates do not wield swords, but rather they use clubs to beat each other with, for the amusement of the great American people.

In short, the U.S. has brutal gladiatorial matches for a baying crowd of bloodthirsty, yet politically apathetic voters; France has dinner party conversations for political aficionados.

Gallic shrugging and innumerable hand-gestures are rewarded with extra percentage-points at the polls; opaque answers and rhetorical questions are tolerated if done with verve and finesse. In America, should a candidate use an obscure, semi-forgotten 17th century word during political discourse, they’ll become unelectable overnight, branded a snob and a man who cannot be trusted. In France, by contrast, such a candidate would be lauded, win the election, and live in the annals of French political history as a statesman.

It is often said that politics is just theater. If this is true, then contemporary American politicians would be the third-rate actors in a fourth-tier movie based on a bestselling, highly intellectual book written by a Frenchman. Remember America, we gave you ‘Enlightenment’ and freed you from British hegemonic rule. In a sense, we gave you your freedom you so cherish.  Even Washington, DC was designed by a Frenchman. We are so politically avant-guard and savvy as to be pater-familias of modern, pluralistic democracy.

It is disappointing, therefore, that you do not share our ideals of philosophical political debate.

Where we seek rhetoric, the U.S. gives us focus-group messages; when we bay for debate, it give us parallel stump speeches; and when we seek clarity and ideas, you bring up abortion, Obamacare, or any number of non-issues. American politicians – it seems – have lost the plot in a very French book.

America, you may tout the fact that you have a system of checks and balances, that you have an older constitution, and that you have a house that’s white. But, remember that at the end of our debate night, we will retreat to our maisons with our bellies full of political foie-gras and rhetorical haute-cuisine. You will have to make do with a rather sad, lukewarm, and distinctly stale hamburger.  

Life – of course – is not fair. We cannot all be French after all, but you could at least try.

So, for the 17% of you Americans that can speak enough French to suicidally try to order at a Parisian restaurant, I hope you tune in to the French debate. It’ll be the scene of passion, outrage, verbal agility, and dexterity. For the others, well, you’ll have to make do with plastic rhetoric and artificial ‘issue’ messages in your own forthcoming elections.

We in France bid you a fond farewell – or should I say au revoir – and a bon apétit

Enjoy the political hot dog with the fake wiener that your politicians will try and sell you at this year’s election hot-dog stand. We, in France, will stick with the foie-gras.

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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