Debate of 3 May

Unbridled Aggression Degrades Ultimate Presidential Debate

Jacques Gerstlé, Professor of Political Science at Paris I, is an eminent specialist in televised debates. He has dissected and analysed them all, from the first one where Giscard d'Estaing and Mitterrand were fighting. For him, debating is fighting with words, arguments and speech. Debate is the most agonistic form of political communication. In the televised debate, each candidate has an exceptional opportunity to present to millions of television viewers and potential voters his or her particular electoral offer. 
The debate on 3 May, which saw Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron clash, will go down in the annals as a confrontation of extraordinary violence between two candidates. Disappointed like millions of French people by the degrading spectacle offered by the candidate from Font National, Jacques Gerstlé gives us his analysis. 
On May 3, 2017 we were able to attend the televised debate between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in front of 15.1 million viewers on TF1 and France 2. The culmination of a completely new end-to-end campaign, this debate is the ultimate version of an institutionalized election communication sequence.


Dince the first edition in 1974 (Valéry Giscard d'Estaing-François Mitterrand), this was the seventh inter-tour debate to be held. Every presidential election, with the exception of the one in 2002 marked by Jacques Chirac's refusal to confront Jean-Marie Le Pen, has therefore had this type of programme.

Profusion of debates related to the primaries

If we extend to all the electoral televised debates the number increases considerably since we have to add three debates in 2007 (Ségolène Royal, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Laurent Fabius) on the occasion of the semi-open primary of the Socialists, plus a singular debate between Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou on BFMTV, three debates in 2012 (François Hollande, Martine Aubry, Arnaud Montebourg, Manuel Valls, Jean-Michel Baylet) and a debate in between (Hollande-Aubry). At the end of 2016, three debates will be broadcast during the right and centre primaries (François Fillon, Alain Juppé, Nicolas Sarkozy, Bruno Lemaire, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-François Copé, Frédéric Poisson), before a Fillon/Juppé in the in-between.

Three debates of the Belle Alliance Populaire were also held in 2017 (Benoît Hamon, Manuel Valls, Arnaud Montebourg, Vincent Peillon, François de Rugy Jean-Luc Benhamias, Sylvie Pinel), before a Hamon-Valls in the in-between.

The 2017 campaign has therefore resulted in a significant increase in the use of debates caused by the implementation of the right-wing and Socialist Party primary procedure, to which should be added the debates organised by environmentalists in order to be complete. This is an indicator of the impact of the primaries on the growing and mobilizing media coverage of political life. It should also be remembered that 2017 saw, for the first time, debates before the first round of the primary elections bringing together the five leading candidates on TF1 and then all eleven candidates in an exceptional program by the number of its participants.

Several targets at the same time

What are the main characteristics of this kind of television political programme? First of all, it is based on face-to-face communication between at least two candidates, i.e. co-presents, who exchange speeches under the guidance of journalist-moderators. This interactive communication is embedded in a unidirectional communication mediated by television, which broadcasts to a massive and undetermined audience.

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Discursive exchanges are aimed at this massive audience or, to be more precise, at particular segments of this audience given the electoral targets favoured by the candidates, which may or may not overlap. The difficulty for candidates lies in the imperative of meeting different requirements of the participants in the communication system: answering journalists' questions, while (more or less) dialoguing with the interlocutor and addressing messages to the voters whose vote or electoral support they are seeking, all the while trying to bring them together.

How did the debate on 3 May look at these three levels? Overall it was a violent and brutal debate between competitors who blindly confront each other on an incomplete agenda, in a bellicose interaction and with frontal attacks.

An incomplete agenda

The importance of the thematic questions asked by journalists is well known, as they direct the debate towards particular topics and form the agenda of the debate (cf. J. Gerstlé, C. Piar, Political communicationColin, 2016). First source of dissatisfaction, the agenda of the debate was very incomplete, even if we understand that it is very difficult to be exhaustive and contradictory in only two hours of time.

We will therefore have to be satisfied with the often superficial treatment of unemployment, pensions, the 35-hour week, taxation and purchasing power, social protection, security and terrorism, the family, schools, Europe, foreign policy as summarised in relations with Trump and Putin, and the institutions (number of parliamentarians and number of mandates).

But we can only regret the silence on ecology, health, development aid, the migrant crisis, defence, regional planning, housing, transport, culture, other institutions among others. The "sectoral" deficit considerably weakens the pedagogical scope of the debate and its capacity to inform citizens. The responsibility here is shared between journalists and candidates.

A belligerent interaction

A belligerent interaction was set up from the outset by Marine Le Pen, who embarked on a violent diatribe in which she first attacked her opponent's programme:

"Mr. Macron is the choice of unbridled globalization, uberalization, precariousness, war of all against all, economic plundering, especially of our large groups, the dismemberment of France, and communitarianism. »

It relied on the manipulation of conversational norms, such as the norm of decorum that requires respect for the speaker's speech, that one must let the speaker finish without cutting him or her off, that one must respect the speaking time equal to one's own, etc. It was also based on the manipulation of conversational norms. By questioning the opponent's communication behaviour, we show that he does not respect the norms of ordinary communication ("You've been preventing me from speaking for 10 minutes," exclaims Marine Le Pen).

If he is unable to meet such simple standards, how will he be able to live with much more complicated government practices? In other words, you have to show that you are the boss of interaction within the rules or you will be disqualified by your opponent. The FN candidate thus forced Emmanuel Macron to invoke "courtesy" in order to have the opportunity to continue to make his point.

Frontal attacks

Rather than sending targeted messages through the presentation of programmatic proposals or in rebuttal of opposing proposals, Marine Le Pen has increased frontal attacks and intox (19 were counted by "The decoders" of the newspaper The World) throughout the debate, regardless of the topic under consideration.

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It induces Macron's scathing responses like:

"A large company will not be able to pay in euros on the one hand and pay its employees in francs on the other. It never has been, Mrs. Le Pen. That's a lot of nonsense. »

By her invective she forced Macron to denounce the "nonsense" and continuous "lies" of her opponent, for example on the level of unemployment in 1990 or on the exit from the euro:

"You're talking a lot of nonsense. »
"Don't lie again. »
"You are conducting a campaign of lies and falsifications. »

She has blindly bumped into the programme's critic and the personality of the opponent to reduce it to an heir of François Hollande, who is otherwise "subject" to private interests, Angela Merkel and theUOIF. Far from representing a "peaceful France", which she wanted to embody for a moment in the countryside, Marine Le Pen has rediscovered her father's most virulent accents and has perhaps ruined in two hours six years of work devoted to dedicating the National Front.

Did this debate under these conditions serve any purpose? On the substance, the questions dealt with are all legitimate but remain incomplete for the comparative evaluation of two electoral offers. The transmission of information was very limited in terms of programmes. On the other hand, with regard to personalities, the candidate's brutality was visible - which probably did not strengthen her sectoral credibility (particularly economic and European) and her presidential function, since the presidential function is traditionally not associated with violence but rather with the ability to bring together and guarantee the functioning of institutions.

Emmanuel Macron saw it well, who concludes:

"You live off division. The National Front feeds on it. I refuse the spirit of hatred".

Jacques Gerstlé...Professor of Political Science, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Jacques GERSTLE is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne where he directed for more than ten years the Master in Political and Social Communication. He is the author or co-author of numerous publications on political communication such as "2012, La campagne présidentielle", "La communication politique", "Les effets d'information en politique", "Mediated Politics in Two Cultures", "Le langage des socialistes", "Giscard d'Estaing/Mitterrand : 54774 mots pour convaincre". He reported on the French electoral campaigns from 1972 to 2007 in his contributions to the "Chroniques Electorales" of the Presses de Sciences Po. He has published numerous articles in the Revue Française de Science Politique, Politix, the Revue Française de Sociologie, Pouvoirs. She latest book is written in collaboration: it is the 3rd edition of "Political Communication" published in 2016 by Armand Colin. 
The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.


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