Even though I shall not be voting in it, I must confess that I am thoroughly fascinated by what is happening in the French presidential election. I think a lot of my interest has to do with the far broader spectrum of choice that was available during the first round, even if I could not resist the urge to poke fun at some of the choices on the left. However, now that the field has been cleared to only two candidates, what particularly impresses me is that the centrist François Bayrou is still in the spotlight, even though his first-round numbers were substantially behind those of the leading candidates. Election watchers with far more expertise than my own were giving serious consideration to the prospect that Bayrou could eliminate either Royal or Sarkozy, just as Le Pen had eliminated Jospin in the last election. Personally, I am just as glad that this did not happen, since, by all rights, the distinguishing features between the two candidates are much clearer. However, both candidates now seem to be pinning their strategies on going after those who voted for Bayrou, while Bayrou is doing his best not to exert his own influence over those voters.
It is hard to tell what the deciding factors will be when the runoff election takes place; but it is beginning to appear that many voters will be swayed by which candidate is less annoying, if not downright alienating. Before the election was announced, Sarkozy was already building up a track record of provocation, often by disparaging sectors of the electorate by questioning whether or not they were "really French" (my words, not his, in the interest of full disclosure). Since, whether I like it or not, I carry with me a "cultural memory" of Jews who were subjection to questioning over whether they were "really German" (or "really Austrian" or "really Polish"), this kind of tactic gets to me at a gut level. Sarkozy must have realized that enough voters who really mattered would have similar gut reactions; so much of his "performance" (What else can we call it?) leading up to the runoff involved a "presentation of self" that was more moderate. This left me wondering whether any particular turn of events might knock down this facade and remind the electorate of the more provocative Sarkozy; and, of course, there was the question that, if such events would come to pass, would they have been activated by Royal, or, for that matter, Bayrou?
Reading the latest wire reports, it looks like such events have occurred; and they may have been due to both Royal and Bayrou? Royal seems to have decided that, if her objective is to win over Bayrou's voters, then the best way in which she could present herself to them in a persuasive manner would be in a debate with Bayrou, rather than Sarkozy. Such a debate was planned and scheduled for broadcast tonight on CanalPlus (a cable network that is becoming almost as much a household word as HBO or Turner Broadcasting). However, CanalPlus cancelled their plan on Thursday, claiming that it would violate their equal-time policy; and the debate will be covered by a smaller satellite channel.
As we can read in the Al Jazeera English account, this is where things began to get interesting:
Bayrou said the conservative leader from the UMP party [Sarkozy] had used his media contacts to try to stop him from holding a televised debate with the socialist hopeful.
Sarkozy called the accusations insulting and his campaign director, Claude Gueant said Bayrou was using "Stalinist" tactics.
"It's slander, a slanderous insinuation," he said.
This summary then received further elaboration, which also makes for good reading:
Bayrou has campaigned against Sarkozy's links to big business and media groups, notably the TF1 station owned by Martin Bouygues, a close friend of Sarkozy, who runs the media, construction and telecommunications conglomerate Bouygues.
Royal said: "I think all the pressure that has taken place, notably within a media-financial system to which Nicolas Sarkozy is very linked, have no reason to exist in a democratic country where freedom of speech and debate is very important."
"I'm today holding out my hand ... to all those who think that human values must always prevail over financial and market values," she told supporters at a rally in Lyon.
Sarkozy vehemently denied any involvement in CanalPlus deciding not to air the debate and accused Royal and Bayrou of trying to stage the "Moscow trials", in reference to the show trials of Stalin's political opponents in the 1930s.
"No one is under control, no one is putting pressure," Sarkozy said during a campaign swing in the central French town of Puy Guillaume.
"If renewing politics means staging Moscow trials like this one, this is not renewal," said Sarkozy, the 52-year-old candidate of the governing party.
So it would seem that both Bayrou and Royal may have had a hand in releasing that kraken that lurks within Sarkozy, leading the French voters to question his intimations of moderate conduct, if not his policies. If this was a "cunning plan," then it was well executed, although we shall not know how effective it was until the runoff takes place. One thing I know, however, is that, even though I cannot vote, Royal has finally won my sympathies, given how much of my own writing is about the need for human values to "prevail over financial and market values!"