Wednesday, early p.m.: New emails arrive from the UMP, asking for support. (I’ve been on various party mailing lists for a while.) Here’s one just in from Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Sarkozy’s spokesperson, a note about the rally in Paris on May Day. ‘It was a great, a beautiful day, thanks to you all.’ Now she wants us to tweet the televised debate – Hollande v. Sarkozy – which starts at 9 p.m. She signs off: ‘I’m counting on you.’
On the left, the best voters can hope for is that Hollande will rearrange the furniture of austerity. But tonight is Sarkozy’s last chance to convince them that a socialist administration will forget to change the light bulbs or empty the garbage. Within a week there’ll be mould culture growing in the fridge. Don’t the voters get it? Let them eat mould culture.
Sarkozy is brilliantly coarse in a face-to-face confrontation. By 8.45 there’ll be 20 million people wondering whether the little Terminator is going to fry François Hollande.
Just gone midnight: That was a draw, and a draw bodes well for Hollande. Between flashes of raw aggression, chunky stats were heaved around: at least 130 figures cited in three hours, with Sarkozy clocking one every 47 seconds. Smart viewers were also on fact-checker websites and could tell how many were wide of the mark.
There were errors but no whoppers, although in a bitter row over the future of nuclear power – the PS owe the Greens on this issue – Hollande recalled that Sarkozy had never been to Fukushima, even if he said he had. Sarkozy claimed that France was the only European country without a quarter of negative economic growth since 2009 (wrong) and that France and Sweden had the heaviest tax regimes in Europe (wrong). Hollande put the annual figure for economic migrants at 30,000 (it’s closer to 40,000).
Both candidates faltered on immigration, and Hollande had to backtrack on a pledge to minimise the use of detention centres for illegal immigrants. Sarkozy dug himself into a different hole. For him immigration is about identity, which soon turns into a polemic about the burqa and – one of the uglier distractions in this election – halal meat. And so from there to electoral reform: if non-nationals are allowed to vote in local elections as Hollande proposes, Islamic identity will gain a purchase on the political process. Hollande was convincingly dismissive on this point – are they all Muslims? – but moments later he too was declaring war on halal meat.
Nothing new on the debt: Sarkozy doesn’t believe in Hollande’s formula for growth; Hollande believes austerity without a growth component spells ruin for the economy. But growth requires a new conversation with France’s European partners. On affairs of state and summit meetings, Sarkozy played the seasoned negotiator: you think it’s enough, he told Hollande, to turn up in a prim suit.
But Hollande did not look or sound callow. He held his ground, he went on the offensive surprisingly often and he cast Sarkozy as a president of favours, a partisan, who bestowed appointments on his entourage. At this Sarkozy darkened and called Hollande ‘a petty slanderer’, perhaps the fiercest exchange in a long and bitter fight, with each man speaking for exactly 72 minutes and 17 seconds. That’s political television.
Thursday a.m. The ratings show that fewer than 18 million viewers tuned in – in 2007 it was more than 20 million. Hollande’s camp are on the radio saying he did brilliantly, Sarkozy’s too. In the studio, on the night, Kosciusko-Morizet writes at the end of a bleary-eyed breakfast blog, ‘the president… was called Nicolas Sarkozy.’ But there are two names in this ballot. Campaigning ends by law on Friday at midnight. On Sunday morning at eight the French begin to vote.