The French presidential debate was never going to be pretty, with an embattled incumbent president pitted against a surging contender who lacks executive experience. As the lights went on and the cameras focused, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande emerged on screen. Everyone expected sparks to fly, but little did they were getting a full-blown fireworks display.
The debate began conventionally. The moderators asked Hollande what kind of President he would be. Hollande pontificated about being the President of ‘Justice’ and ‘Unity’ who would stop shielding the ‘privileged few.’ As soon as he had finished his short introduction, Sarkozy quickly pounced. Denouncing these words as ‘classic’ Hollande, Sarkozy said his rival merely ‘talks of unity.’ The fight had begun in earnest.
As the minutes ticked by, both candidates' cool and composure melted in the glare of the cameras. Hollande frequently interrupted Sarkozy. On the other side of the ‘X’ shaped table, Sarkozy sneered. Hinting at Hollande’s inexperience, he called him ‘Mr. Little Jokes,’ alluding to Hollande’s occasional jokes during the campaign and his presumed lack of seriousness.
Eventually, after minor skirmishes and a little rough foreplay, Sarkozy launched an all-out attack. The President denounced Hollande as a "little slanderer" when facing a tough line of Hollande’s questioning, calling him an outright liar. Hollande responded: “You are not here to say what I know, or what I do not know.” For the duration of the 2½-hour debate, there would be the constant refrain of 'Liar' and 'No, you're the liar.' Frequently, this resembled marriage counseling, not a political debate.
So visceral did it become, that DSK was mentioned (by Sarkozy), as was the Lilliane Bettencourt corruption case (by Hollande). It was evident that the debate was the brutal culmination of an electoral campaign of attrition. Both had sought to demonize each other. Now finally face-to-face, they fought mercilessly in the political equivalent of a cockfight.
Yet, other than demonstrate a shift from the gentile but razor-sharp era of Presidents such as Mitterrand and Chirac, what did the debate show? Sarkozy was more pugnacious than we previously thought, at times verging on super-aggressive. For him, the electorate mattered little; he just wanted to destroy Hollande at any cost. For Hollande, it was an exercise in restraint and controlled emotion. He needed to show that he could meet Sarkozy and rise above him, becoming a potential statesman.
Over the whole proceedings hung the spectre of Germany. Sarkozy extolled its economic virtues and pointed to its successes. Hollande was less embracing, and sought to debunk the Sarkozy socio-economic narrative. Nevertheless, Germany was present and undoubtedly, Angela Merkel was watching proceedings. Berlin must be shaking its head at the prospect of dealing with Hollande.
Both candidates acknowledged that this election is important, and that the eyes of the world were upon them because of Europe's economic crisis. However, both disagreed on how to approach the problems. It was a telling divergence of economic beliefs.
At the end of debate, the lights went off and the 20 million viewers tuned out. In the silence, there was pause for reflection. Undoubtedly, Sarkozy and Hollande both believe they are ideally suited for the position. Hollande, though, had carried the night far better than Sarkozy. He had remained calm, whereas Sarkozy had lost his cool. He had succeeded in painting the President as a shady character with powerful, rich friends; a man that could not be trusted with another five years in control of French politics.
With economic storm clouds gathering on the horizon, this felt a very artificial debate. There were no new policies, no deep discussions about how to approach the next five years. Only abstract talk of growth and deficit reduction. In a year’s time, this will be viewed as a mere fireworks display. One that was spectacular for a few hours, but faded rapidly from memory.
The most telling moment came when Hollande said firmly: “Mr. Sarkozy, you would have a hard time passing for a victim. It’s never your fault, there is always a scapegoat.” It could be France agrees with him on this come May 6,during the final round of the election.