Saturday, May 05, 2007

What is a political 'debate'?

This week was political both in France and in the U.S. as both countries had their share of political debates.

The Americans had the Republican Presidential Candidates Debate when the French had their one and only debate between their two presidential candidates, right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Ségolène Royal. And tomorrow, the French will finally go to the polls for the run-off ballot.

However, there was little resemblance between the two sorts of debate

In the American political debate, the journalist – the ‘moderator’ (this week, Chris Matthew) - is in control and the candidates are given only a few minutes (sometimes even a few seconds) to answer the questions asked by the moderator. They will even be interrupted if they go beyond the time limit. (This of course was not always the case- think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 for instance). In addition, generally the candidates will not address each other and they will mostly speak to the moderator or the viewer – although they will be given time to rebut what a fellow contender might have said, to the discretion of the journalists in charge. The set is a good illustration of this idea – the political candidates are standing behind pulpits, facing the moderator and the audience.

This was also true of the last presidential debate between Kerry and Bush:

The French political debate is quite different – the candidates are sitting at a table, facing each other with the moderators sitting next to them. The contenders address each other and that can sometimes turn personal. The journalists hardly interfere and for the most part do not interrupt the discussion. This type of debate is a good illustration of the way the way French journalists have some kind of deference for politicians. To ensure equality of treatment, there is a stop watch and most of the interruption by the moderators consists in making sure that the time-share is equal. Any other interference would be viewed as highly improper.

No system is perfect. The greatest advantages of the American system are that it is well ordered and it covers all the topics chosen by the moderators. It also forces the political candidates to be precise and certainly sum up his views in a few words. The problem is that it tends to be infantilizing and it is often quite boring to watch. But more than anything else, to the French, this would hardly qualify as a “debate” because there is no direct exchange.

Tellingly, the French debate gets confusing and does necessarily cover all the topics planned by the moderators. In last week’s debate, the journalists spoke for 6 minutes out of 2 and ½ hours. It can also get ugly and personal. On the other hand, it is a lot more exciting to watch. Anything can happen in this real war of words. The French political debate finds its roots in the French salon of the 18th century in which the art of conversation was similar to fencing with bon mot (wit), repartee and riposte. In the French political debate, form matters about as much as content.

No matter how, there will be frustration with both systems but I tend to prefer the French system for its entertainment valued, if nothing else.

Post-Scriptum: To be fair, most of the exchange was more colorful than witty. Here's a good example for you (cf. The NYTimes):

“Calm down,” he [Sarkozy] told her.

“No, I will not calm down,” she [Royal]replied.

“Do not point at me with this finger, with this——” he said.

“No. Yes,” she said.

“With this index finger pointed, because frankly——”

“No, I will not calm down,” she said. “No, I will not calm down. I will not calm down.”

“To be president of the republic, you have to be calm,” he said.

She responded: “Not when there are injustices. There are angers that are perfectly healthy because they correspond to people’s suffering. There are angers I will have even when I am president of the republic.”

In the middle of her sentence, Mr. Sarkozy tried to stop her, asking, “Madame Royal, would you allow me to say one word?” But she ignored him.

His voice took on a patronizing tone. “I don’t know why the usually calm Madame Royal has lost her nerve,” he said.


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