Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The look and feel of a President

Last night’s televised debate between the five main candidates for the Presidency of France was not riveting.   A debate between five candidates is a misnomer anyway. A real, and decisive, debate between the two finalists will be held a few days before May 7. That is when we may hear a memorable and killer soundbite of the kind that tipped the scales in favour of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 (“Mr. Mitterand, vous n’avez pas le monopole du cœur” – “Mr. Mitterand, you have no monopoly of the heart”)  or the anaphora, “Moi, Président de la République…”  - “If I were President of France”   …… of François Hollande that dealt the  knockout blow to Sarkozy in 2012.

Of the five candidates on stage last night, answering imprecise and sometimes inept questions from two journalists, only three are in the running for the second round and only two will make it. Which two? If current opinion polls are to be believed, they will be Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, meaning the effective elimination of both the right and left wing parties that have governed France since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. But then, as the pollsters themselves are quick to point out, a poll is only a snapshot of public opinion at any given time, and, it must added, of voters who have already made up their mind. A month before the first round of voting many of them haven’t and they are the ones who will make the difference on the day.

So I found myself looking at the candidates last night and wondering what the floating voters would do on April 23 and, above all, on May 7. As they stand in line to cast their ballots, what will they be thinking of? Less, perhaps, of policies and more of character, image and stature. Which candidate will they find the most presidential?

Marine le Pen will clearly attract a sizeable protest vote and given the electoral arithmetic of a divided left and a troubled right, may very well, for that reason alone, make it into the second round. But even that is not a certainty. And on the basis of her performance last night, the usual combination of bluster, anti-establishment and xenophobic  rhetoric and a cheesy, cynical smile, not to speak of her lunatic economic policies, of which she said very little but which were neatly skewered by Fillon at one point, I really can’t see a majority of the French electorate sending her to the Elysée Palace for the next five years. Emmanuel Macron has undoubtedly broken the mould of presidential politics and is the darling of the polls at the moment. But to me he remains unconvincing. A minister, yes, even a Prime Minister, but not yet the stuff of a President.  Too young, too inexperienced, and on the basis of last night’s showing, a little too quick to rise to the bait and a bit flustered on a big night in the face of a hostile crowd. Do the French really feel that a young man of 39, however bold and gifted, can rise to the challenge of leading one of the oldest and richest civilisations in Europe? I have my doubts. Giscard d’Estaing was 48 in 1974, Nicholas Sarkozy 52 in 2007. Both were considered young at the time but both had experience in local and national politics. Both could look forward to solid parliamentary majorities to govern. Neither was re-elected for a second term.

François Fillon, at 63, projected the experience of his years and his long political career. He came across as calm, serious, on top of his brief, with a sixth sense of when to speak and when to stand back with an enigmatic and distant grin. When he spoke, he sounded convincing and often incisive. Of the five candidates on stage, he was the only one who struck me as having the look and feel of a President. I found myself thinking of François Mitterand.

After Chirac, who thoroughly enjoyed being President but achieved comparatively little during his twelve years in office, Sarkozy, who spend most of his presidency preening himself and Hollande who never recovered from being elected on false pretences, my guess is that this time, the French, in their majority, not only want a serious, calm and conservative father figure to guide their country through the difficult period ahead but also a President who will reflect who they are and how they see themselves and their country. Had François Fillon’s judgement not been found seriously wanting in recent weeks, he would have stood head and shoulders above the other candidates last night. He should not be written off yet. He may still emerge victorious from this long and gruelling campaign. 

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