Prelude to The Debate

19 April 2022

The much-awaited debate will take place tomorrow. The candidates have haggled over every aspect. By common agreement the studio will be kept at a chilly 19° C. to guard against flop sweat. Both sides rejected Anne-Sophie Lapix as moderator for reasons only they can explain: to me, she seems the mildest of interviewers, but perhaps what they’re after is du répondant rather than self-effacing blandness: Léa Salamé is better for that. Unlike 2017, when the candidates faced each other across a table, this year they will stand at podiums 2.5 meters apart, more like a US presidential debate format. There are rules restricting what the cameras may show as reaction shots: Marine Le Pen did not wish to be shown drinking water or searching her notes, perhaps because she seemed flustered and panicky when she riffled through her briefing books in 2017. The subject areas and the order in which they will be taken up has been carefully worked out: Macron, for instance, insisted that “immigration” not be treated under the head of “le régalien,” since for him it is not merely a matter of repression. The environment will open the show. Both candidates have taken time off the campaign trail to prepare, but nothing has leaked out about what lines they might take and who has been preparing them.

The stakes are high. The debate could alter the momentum of the final days of the race, which seems to have shifted slightly in Macron’s favor. It could change everything–or nothing. No one is likely to learn much new about the character of either candidate, but the last-minute platform changes–Le Pen has backed off the citizen’s referendum and the veil ban, while Macron has rediscovered ecology and signaled flexibility on pension reform. Most voters have made up their minds, but it’s generally agreed that 15-20 percent decide only at the end of a campaign.

To those who wonder how anyone could hesitate between Macron and Le Pen, it’s not easy to anticipate what might sway a viewer one way or another: a misplaced frown or scowl, a well-timed smile or raised eyebrow, an opportune one-liner or a clinching argument in favor of some key policy. Or perhaps just the je ne sais quoi that distinguishes the weak from the strong, the sincere from the insincere, the wise person from the fool–or gives the appearance of doing so. Televised debates are often boring, sometimes maddening, occasionally infuriating, but seldom decisive. Yet they will continue to be watched intently as long as the presidency retains its outsized power and television its mysterious and unparalleled influence.

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