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The French Presidential Debate- Sarkozy and
Royal Face to Face
by Walt Ballenberger

Surprising Role Reversal
Perhaps the most surprising turn of events in the Segolene Royal vs.
Nicolas Sarkozy debate on French television on Wednesday night
before the final election this Sunday was a sort of role reversal for the
candidates.  Sarkozy is known for being blunt, aggressive and
combative, yet it was certainly Segolene Royal who filled that role
during the debate.  Sarkozy was calm and determined.  At one point
Royal got angry and seem to be trying to goad Sarkozy into a reaction,
but he remained calm and didn’t take the bait.  Several foreign
journalists discussing the debate afterwards thought that this
exchange probably hurt her.  Sarkozy suggested that she calm down
and took the opportunity to tell her that the president of the country
needs to remain calm under pressure.  She was probably trying to
show the French people that she can be tough and handle the job.  
She would be the first female chief of state in France if she were to win.

The Setting and Moderators
The setting was interesting for an American viewer.  The debate was
held in a television studio, whereas most American presidential
debates are held in front of a live audience.  The two candidates sat
facing each other in fairly close proximity.  To the side were two
television news personalities who were the moderators.  There were
also two large clocks keeping track of how much time each candidate
was speaking.  The main goal of the moderators seemed to be to keep
the speaking time equal for both candidates.  In the end Sarkozy had
spoken about 3 minutes less than Royal and was offered additional
time.  He politely declined and simply went into his planned 3 minute
summary, followed by Royal who did the same.  To introduce different
subjects the moderators did not ask specific questions, as a moderator
would do in a U.S. Presidential debate, but they simply asked the
candidates to address one subject or another.  The moderators
received a lot of criticism from the international press corps that
discussed the debate afterward.  For one thing the debate was
supposed to last 2 hours, but it actually went on for 2 hours and 40
minutes, ending at 11:40 pm in France.  They were also criticized for
deemphasizing important subjects such as foreign affairs.

All About Internal Affairs
The subject matter was very heavy on internal French political matters,
and one commentator suggested that this was indicative of the general
French mentality at this point in time.  He said the discussion was too
“Franco-Francais”.  In any case the candidates discussed work and
unemployment above all, and this is indeed a hot topic in France.  
Other discussion centered on health care (the French have an
excellent system- in my opinion better than what we have in the U.S.
and much less expensive), retirement and retirement funding (the
entire retirement system in France is like social security in the U.S.- the
whole system is managed by the federal government), taxes (highest
in Europe), the 35 hour work week, housing, nuclear and alternative
energy sources, the environment, and of course education.  The
French are always very concerned about education, and they do have
an excellent system.  Interesting comments in that regard were made
by both candidates.  Royal said she wanted to offer pre-school
education to all children and would make school mandatory after the
age of 3.  Sarkozy said he would set up a supervised study period
after classes each day such that when students went home their
homework would be completed already.  There was also lots of debate
and argument about how much the various programs proposed would
cost and where the money would come from.  

International Discussion Meager
The international press corps assembled after the debate complained
that there was very little discussion about foreign affairs.  In fact the
subject only came up toward the end after the scheduled two hours
had elapsed.  Most of the talk concerned the European Union and
whether or not Turkey should be a member (Sarkozy is against this),
and there was a short exchange about Darfur in Africa.  That led to a
suggestion by Royal that France might boycott the Olympic Games in
China, as a large Chinese petroleum company is operating there.  
Sarkozy is against this idea.  There was no mention at all of Cross
Atlantic relations, although most people feel that Sarkozy would be
friendlier towards the U.S. than would the socialist Royal.  Globalization
was not really discussed much either, except to lament how French
jobs were being lost when companies relocate to regions with lower
operating costs.

A Typical Left/Right Debate- Sarkozy Did Well in Poll
In large measure this was a left vs. right debate, and that sort of
discourse is very normal in France.  The political pendulum has swung
more to the right lately.  Only about 35% of the voters in the first round
were for left leaning candidates.  Both Sarkozy and Royal were trying
to attract people in the center of the political spectrum, and there were
a large number of them in the first round.  The candidate of the
centrist UDF party, Francois Bayrou, garnered over 18% of the vote, a
significant number.  After the debate Bayrou said he would not vote for
Sarkozy, but he didn’t endorse Royal either.  So it remains to be seen
if his followers will do the same.  One poll released after the debate
indicated that Sarkozy was more convincing by a margin of 53% to
31% for Royal.  If accurate, this would be damaging for Royal.  Sarkozy
has been leading in the opinion polls all year.  

Opinion Poll Results
The first opinion polls taken after the debate show that Sarkozy seems
to have gained.  In three polls his lowest margin of victory is 53%-47%,
and in one poll the difference was 9%.  The left is still appealing to
voters in the center saying that Sardozy is "dangerous" and that havoc
will break out in the country if he is elected.  They are appealing to the
political center to block Sarkozy.  Curiously (for an American) there is
no campaigning allowed on Friday and Saturday before the election on
Sunday.  I admit I don't understand the rational for that but will try to
find out.  If someone reading this is aware, please feel free to email
with the answer or make a blog post on the subject.

One Final Comment
I was surprised to see that on the evening before the debate Mme
Royal had her largest rally of the campaign- with 60,000 people at a
stadium in Paris (only 40,000 could get in).  Most American candidates
spend the day before a major debate by studying, rehearsing, and
going over the facts and figures, anticipating what the other candidate
will accuse them of, etc.  I had the feeling watching the debate that
Mme Royal was at some times not prepared.  Sarkozy on several
occasions stated a position on a subject, justified his position, and
tried to pin her down to something specific.  On such occasions she
often answered by saying something like "the parties in question will
discuss the matter and decide", rather than giving a precise position.  
My feeling was that she could have been better prepared and should
have been ready with better answers.  It's one thing to say that one
has spent one's political life preparing and that one is always ready to
respond, but it is another to be on top of the details and anticipate the
opponent.  Sarkozy was not perfect either, but he seemed much better
prepared than Royal.
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