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A Campaign Without Debates by Hélène de Lauzun

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A Campaign Without Debates

With the elections less than a month away, the French are beginning to wonder whether the presidential campaign will actually begin. 

Apart from the fact that the campaign is being overshadowed by the war in Ukraine—which is being milked by President Emmanuel Macron, who has also assumed France’s round as head of the European Union—the lack of debate between the candidates is becoming a major problem.

The decision of the outgoing president is extremely clear: he stubbornly refuses to debate with his opponents. Worse, beyond the rules imposed by the Campaign Control Commission, he himself sets the conditions for their media performances, which must be in line with his wishes. On Monday, March 14th, a “debate” of the candidates on the war in Ukraine was announced to take place in the media, “Facing the War.” In advance of the TV show, Macron had set his conditions: the candidates were not to cross paths, not even backstage; they were not to speak to each other; no shots of the public. It was therefore a simple juxtaposition of individual performances—long and tedious. The French had to make do with an ersatz discussion. 

Emmanuel Macron completely controls the media space, therefore the other candidates are required to adapt to his imperatives, which leads to some awkward and disappointing results. Recently, a major general debate, scheduled on the BFM channel for Wednesday, March 23th, was cancelled. Why? Macron declined to debate, leading to Marine Le Pen’s withdrawal. She intended to denounce the manoeuvres of the Elysée Palace, but did not want to be locked in a confrontation with the other candidates, considered secondary. The evening was therefore purely and simply cancelled

Emmanuel Macron’s minimalist strategy is applied at all levels. He has not yet participated in any rally, but such public invisibility has no impact on his supporters: “we go to church for Jesus, even if we don’t see him,” one of them told France TV Info. He announced his first rally for Saturday, April 2nd—only 8 days before the first round. This has never been seen before. 

Outrageously confident in polls that show him leading by 30%, Emmanuel Macron does not bother to defend his ideas, his programme, or his person. He knows that he would have too much to lose by exposing himself to the blows of his opponents and prefers to quietly enjoy a comfortable ride provided by his newly minted status as “warlord.”

But, a campaign without enthusiasm and passion ends up being tiresome. The result is apathy and a general disgust among voters. The expectation for voter abstention has never been so high for a presidential election, which usually represents a highly anticipated moment in French political life. There is a smell of death coming from the corpse of French democracy. 

It may be that Macron is playing a dangerous game. The suspicion of a confiscated campaign is becoming more and more intense in French opinion. The hashtag #PasDeDébatPasDeMandat, launched by the left-wing newspaper Libération, is starting to go viral and is being picked up by accounts from all political sides. 

In this ambient stagnation, the game is difficult for Emmanuel Macron’s opponents. 

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Éric Zemmour has entered a downward phase, and for the moment the dynamic does not seem to be reversing. His televised confrontation with the Republican candidate Valérie Pécresse on Thursday, March 10th, did not have the desired effect. The debate was aggressive and not very readable. While Zemmour was given the win in advance, doubts crept into the ranks of Reconquête activists, some of whom were disappointed by the performance of their favourite. On Thursday, March 17th, aggressiveness and polemics also dominated Éric Zemmour’s exchange with ecologist candidate Yannick Jadot during one of the major programmes of the campaign on a national channel, Élysée 2022. The volatility of the debate made the substantive exchanges inaudible

Reconquête, now on counter-offensive, has launched a major operation, the 100 Reconquest rallies, intended to get back on track in the final leg of the race. Éric Zemmour’s female asset, former MP Marion Maréchal, is widely promoted in the communication, as well as new people joining, such as LR Senator Sébastien Meurant, now a Reconquête party member. However, for the time being, there has not been the “Marion effect” in the polls that Zemmour’s teams were hoping for. Fatigue, perhaps. But the candidate’s cancellation of certain events have not helped. Calendar errors too have sent negative signals, such as Zemmour’s “forgetfulness” to visit executives of small and medium-sized companies. Many of the former journalist’s supporters, anxious to ward off fate, prefer to look ahead to the next stage, namely the legislative elections. But there too, uncertainty reigns, with quarrels which the newspaper L’Express echoes and which will make it difficult to pull together the union of the Right.

Nevertheless, the Reconquête party remains unimpressed by the downward slump in the polls; it willingly recalls that in 2002, the polls had totally underestimated Jean-Marie Le Pen, who nevertheless reached the second round. 

What to believe? Who to believe? The only certainty lies in the extreme volatility of French opinion, disconcerted by a meaningless campaign. The candidate of the Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, continues to rise slowly and is close to 20% in the latest opinion polls. Her major concern is over the abstention numbers, which would affect the popular electorate that traditionally supports her. For the first time, she agreed to take part in the talk show of the successful host Cyril Hanouna, precisely to reach out to those who have stayed away from politics for too long. In terms of communication, she chose to play the card of appeasement and serenity, a strategy that may be disconcerting but is bearing fruit. During the programme “Facing the War,” the peak of the audience was reached at the time of Marine Le Pen’s intervention, and the echoes of her performance at Cyril Hanouna’s house are playing in her favour.

Macron made the safe choice to avoid his opponents in order to preserve his base. But important issues are piling up against him. His recent announcement to grant Corsica its autonomy has been badly perceived as “giving into violence.” The explosive report of the senate on the abuse of consultancy firms during his term, and the suspicion of tax evasion taint his administration’s reputation for transparency and efficiency. Finally, rumours are swirling about his willingness to dissolve the National Assembly as soon as he is re-elected, to better control future legislative elections. He thus gives the impression of a small dictator jealous of his power. How far will the French allow their political lives to be confiscated in this way?

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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