In a political culture driven entirely by media preoccupations, there’s always that awkward moment when the indignant expectations of the press and the wishes of people who live in the real world diverge. The result is usually described as “surprising,” which is a code word used by editors. The rough translation: “People are dumber than I thought.”
For example, two weeks ago, just before the first round in the French presidential elections, the media here thought the outcome was just totally unpredictable (I wrote about the press’s apparent lack of psychic powers here). Then, totally out of the wild blue, came Nicholas Sarkozy, the man who had led in the polls for months and months, to win the top spot. Who could have guessed?
Well, fool the Euro-press once, shame on them. Fool them twice, shame on them again. So this time, they’ve gotten out ahead of the curve. Despite Ségolène Royal’s relentless campaign to become president of French women, reported here by Libération, and her Obi-Wanish sloganeering — “We do not want to appeal to people’s dark side, but to the light and hope inside them, Luke,” she said (“Luke” added), caught here by the BBC — they see a Sarko win looming, and, by gum, this time, it’s not surprising them. It’s just making them sad. The European press is suddenly drenched in a kind of melancholy redolent of Derek Zoolander on a really bad day.
The sorrow started just after the end of the debate between Royal and Sarkozy. The debate, captured here with a twist of panache by Nidra Poller for Pajamas Media, didn’t go quite the way the Left had hoped. Ségo nearly knocked herself out a couple of times by losing her temper and making stuff up. Plus, it was weird stuff: Pressing Sarkozy to reveal his ignorance of exactly what percentage of energy France produces using nuclear power, and when Sarkozy ventured the amount was “more than half,” she answered her own gotcha question with a triumphant “17!” Unfortunately, the actual figure is somewhere around 80 percent, according to l’Express.
And when asked by Sarkozy exactly how high she intended to boost certain taxes, she replied, “As high as necessary to achieve social justice,” to which Sarkozy quietly remarked that the number perhaps lacked precision. The Don Imus moment of the debate came when Ségolène defended one of her statements by saying, “Words don’t hurt people.” And she’s right: Words don’t hurt people. People with words hurt people. The NRA could have told Sarko that. And to prove that particular point, Royal later warned Libération’s readers that if she loses, the nation could descend into violence.
Anyway, the whole transcript’s available for reading here, with a push-button translator attached, courtesy of Le Nouvel Observateur. See what you think. Even though I scored the show for Sarkozy on points, others disagree. For example, Charles Bremner, the Times’ normally sober man in Paris, where wine is very good and extremely cheap, bizarrely claimed Ségolène won — and her husband agreed, according to Le Monde. Both men no doubt will be “surprised” to find that, according to poll results published in Le Figaro and elsewhere, an overwhelming number of French citizens (and the debate was watched by 23 million viewers, as many people as watch the World Cup) actually thought Sarkozy emerged the victor. The poll numbers: 53 to 31 percent.
So on into the weekend and to next Sunday’s vote. The Euro-press’s morose mantra is that Sarkozy is mean, a nationalist, a populist — the terms usually reserved for Jean-Marie Le Pen, but now directed against the Gaullist, who, on an American spectrum, would be seen as a moderate Democrat, but in France is viewed as “radical conservative” to use Bremner’s delicate phraseology. To the BBC’s World Service, Sarko’s simply a “rightwinger” — but then to the World Service, who isn’t?
Because she carries the banner of European liberal elitism, the continent’s fatigued editorialists have all lined up to make a last-minute desperate plea for Ségo’s success. The Guardian warns that France will get a dose of Thatcher if they aren’t careful in making their choice! Eursoc carries a piece on Le Parisien’s pro-Ségo, pre-poll puffery. The dueling editors of Libération and Le Figaro are man-purse-slapping it out on the radio. At l’Humanité, a radically left-wing editorialist puts Sarko comfortably in the pocket of business interests.
But my favorite is Jean-Marie Colombani’s bummed-out editorial in Le Monde. Colombani is the Pinch of France — both men operate money-losing newspapers that appeal to establishment liberals. Colombani’s worry is about the “Two Frances” he sees — a trope apparently borrowed from a thousand old John Edwards speeches. Colombani’s fear: Sarkozy is a bit too Americanesque for France.
It’s a last-minute revival of the standard anti-American tripe that used to be a no-fail vote getter in France, but one that seems to be going nowhere this time around — not that it hasn’t been tried: At one point last month Le Nouvel Observateur reported Ségo saying she wouldn’t shake George W. Bush’s hand without giving him a lecture on French values first — a comment that caused reader John Williamson to wonder, “Who does she think she is? Jim Webb?”
But the Yankee scapegoat’s been milked dry by politicians such as Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, men with far more cynicism than imagination. Unfortunately, it’s a cynicism the Colombanis of the world understand well because, like a generation of failed politicians, the Euro-press has made it a way of life. So Colombani perhaps thought he would frighten the French when he warned them that Sarko’s platform echoes the “compassionate conservatism” of the hated American neocons.
Since one of Sarkozy’s aims is to bloat the country’s huge and failing education bureaucracy, Bush-style, Colombani could be quite right. It’s certainly something the French would find familiar — and, if Royal loses, one of the things they no doubt hope Sarkozy will leave behind.