The Great Debate: Sarko, Sego Showdown at the Last Chance Salon


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Last night, May 2nd, most of France was glued to the television set to watch the much anticipated debate between presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal.
Because the margin between the candidates is already close, many felt that one false remark or sign of weakness, lack of confidence or coherence from either candidate could make a big difference on election day.

In retrospect, it appears that most voters, according to one poll, ‘have already made their decision’ (which is a surprising difference from the first vote two weeks ago in which there was uncertainty until the last minute).

Regardless of who ends up governing France, the debate was truly historic. Imagine the rigorous preparation necessary to debate an opposing candidate for 2 hours and 40 minutes.
One might say that both Sarkozy and Royal have learned lessons from Zidane when it comes to performing under stress. Don’t lose your cool – no matter what happens.

The subjects for discussion were no surprise – being, logically, the issues that concern the majority of French voters: the deficit, unemployment, the 35-hour work week, France’s economy, the braindrain, curbing violence, education, housing, retirement, energy and a very brief nod to the rest of the world – a few jabs and ducks regarding the EU – and a definite ‘no go’ from Sarkozy re Turkey’s joining the EU, the rapport between Sudan and China, and Royal’s recent visit to China vs boycotting the Olympics in Beijing.

Although these are the issues pivotal to winning the election, some of us were just as interested in seeing how two politically astute (and very different) candidates would address one another. Some viewers had expected that Royal would not last for even two hours, that her confidence would flag. Far from it.

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Royal went into the arena like a bull dog that refused to let go. Some thought Sarkozy would be more likely to take an aggressive stance. Perhaps already having the lead in the polls, he was trying to retain a ‘gentlemanly’ image. Meanwhile Royal didn’t hesitate to talk in shotgun streaks refusing to leave an opening. She would ask questions of Sarkozy, then refuse the time for his answer.

Her aggressive stance impressed me on one hand, and on the other hand, I finally wanted her to let up and give her opponent the chance to answer some of her questions (but of course he had to wait until it was his ‘turn’). Clearly both candidates were trying to psyche one another out. When Royal said she was ‘en colere’ angry because Sarkozy dared to use the example of physically challenged students unable to go to public schools, Sarkozy suggested that she was ‘enerve’ or unnerved.
“I’m never unnerved,” she replied emphatically. “I’m angry – and being angry can be a good thing.”

As Bayrou, the centrist party candidate who lost in the first round, suggested, neither candidate dwelled on the financial issues – the deficit was taken on first – and quickly enough to move onto the subjects, in particular social issues – and the more emotional issues. Both candidates offered a rosy picture of the future – and no mention was made of ‘sacrifice’ or ‘belt tightening’. Royal danced around the issue of raising new taxes – but didn’t exactly hit us over the head with “Yes, I’m going to raise taxes.” But if there’s a deficit, well, go figure.

Sarkozy would have more French people buying their own homes rather than renting. And he’d want them free to work as many hours and as many years as they can before they become senile. But he also hopes for a cure for Alzheimers so that would give more working years to anybody who’d like to continue working into their sixties, seventies and eighties. A right to work – where have I heard that before?

Sarkozy also would like to have the inheritance taxes between husbands and wives alleviated. He didn’t specify if he intended to abolish this tax – or just cut it down by 10 percent – it would have been nice to hear some actual numbers, but this debate was pretty sparse with actual numbers.

Royal who is supposed to be woman’s best friend did not seem to have any plan for widows who often have no choice but to sell their family home rather than try to come up with the inheritance tax to pay for a house that the husband and wife have worked all their life to pay for (and now must pay even more when one of them dies). Does this make sense to you? Then when both parents are gone, the kids have to pay another inheritance tax.

Royal showed supreme confidence in her ability to ‘make things work’ and that would include reorganizing government jobs that are no longer needed – such as the customs agents originally posted at European borders (EU customs borders have been abolished). Rather than fire people, she would have them moved to new jobs – like accompanying female police officers home at night. (I must have missed something here – my French must be pretty bad after all).

Both candidates dwelled on the issues that might hit home to voters, and touch on the voters’ sensibilities: home and hearth, children’s education, violence on the street – images of vulnerable women (incited numerous times by Segolene Royal who is so far from vulnerable).

The real kicker of the evening was the last question asked by the moderators:
So what do you think of one another?
Respect. I don’t hold any grudges. We’re not adversaries – but partners.
Some had hoped the evening might end by Nicolas and Segolene joining hands and walking off into the sunset – but that would have been a Hollywood ending.

From this point onward, more are concerned that whatever follows the debate will be an anticlimax. Same old, same old.