Drôle de campagne: The Politics of “le clash télévisé”

23 January 2022

This year’s French presidential campaign has all the dynamism of an equestrian statue. Instead of the (misleadingly) dramatic duel between Macron and Le Pen expected initially, we have instead a tiresome (if equally misleading) three-way contest for second place among Zemmour, Le Pen, and Pécresse. This is solely a consequence of Zemmour’s entry into the race, which immediately deprived Le Pen of half of her support–a really remarkable demonstration of vulnerability for a candidate who has been on the forefront of the national scene for a decade and a party that, despite ups and downs, has been impossible to ignore for nearly half a century.

The fact that an upstart like Zemmour could change everything overnight is a testament to the power of television to impose a personality on the public mind. Of course, observers of American politics have witnessed this power already in the transformation of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump from small-screen hucksters to world-historical players, so it should come as no surprise that such a thing is possible in France as well, albeit with a distinctively French flavor.

I was reminded of this in viewing an old clip of Zemmour in action where I first discovered him, many years ago, on a program hosted by Laurent Ruquier, On n’est pas couché. The clash that took place that evening a decade ago is in the news again, as Pécresse is accusing Zemmour of having laughed at a passage in her book in which she recounts a sexual assault she experienced at age 24. Whether this laughter occurred or not is in dispute: Pécresse claims it was edited out of the broadcast, but other witnesses say it never happened, and the producer says the show was aired live and not edited.

What’s more interesting, though, is what remains in the record: Zemmour accuses Pécresse of not having written her own book, of having adopted the mentality and vocabulary of a PR flack, and of citing a personal anecdote rather than a political/historical analysis to explain each of her policy positions.

Whether these charges are accurate or not is immaterial. What matters is Zemmour’s flair in weaving his polemical stabs into a narrative of inauthenticity. He is indicting not so much Pécresse personally as the allegedly fraudulent discourse of the entire political class. None of them, he is saying, believe what they say. None of them have given a moment’s thought to the history of France or the true desires of its people. They are nothing but “communicants“: this is the epithet he hurls in Pécresse’s face. She, for all her careful coif, elite pedigree, extensive CV, and “humanizing” narrative, is a consummate phony, he asserts, whereas he–the homely outsider and impolite provocateur prepared to violate all the codes of acceptable elite intercourse–is the genuine voice of the people. To do this, he doesn’t have to appear dumb–this is France, not the United States. He is permitted to make a parade of a certain kind of erudition, to demonstrate familiarity with the arcana of policy, and to quote extensively from statements the candidate herself appears to have forgotten making, whether in her own book or on the floor of the Assemblée Nationale.

Now these two antagonists find themselves locked in a battle where the stakes are much larger. One or the other could beat Le Pen and end up as Macron’s opponent. Or it could be Le Pen herself. As the polls now stand, I don’t think any of the three will beat Macron, but if anyone has a chance, it is most likely Pécresse, who would not be in this position without her erstwhile nemesis Zemmour.

This would all be very amusing but for the fact that this made-for-TV drama has all but eliminated any real discussion of the issues. Not that political campaigns are ever very edifying about issues, which are nearly always honored more in the breach than in the observance. But this time the whole affair is permeated with the feel of what the French like to call un clash, that is, a staged face-off between two bellowing gladiators, punctuated by agonized cries of “Don’t interrupt me!” “Let me finish!” “I’m still speaking, Madame!” under the watchful eye of un animateur, the opposite of a moderator, who is well paid to reproduce such spectacles week after week.

That Zemmour has been more successful at l’art du clash than anyone else in the history of French television is the secret of his not-so-sudden success, the product of twenty years of hard work in the TV trenches, and ultimately also the story of Macron’s (probable) re-election, undergirded by the votes of people who don’t watch programs like On n’est pas couché.

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