I watched large parts of the last Socialist debate between Martine Aubry and François Hollande. Both were competent, articulate, and cautious. Neither pandered unduly to Montebourg voters. Their exchanges with each other were mild, restrained, respectful. Both demonstrated mastery of the issues. Neither stood out as a particularly compelling personality. Two seasoned énarques, doing what énarques do so well: dispensing tightly constructed, neatly paragraphed responses to every imaginable question about government policy. If I were president, I'd be delighted to have either one as prime minister.
What I did not get from the debate--nor would I have expected to--was any sense of a deeper philosophy of state or statecraft. De Gaulle once said that if you want to build autoroutes in France, you have to give the French poetry. Poetry was not in evidence Wednesday night. Nor was any particular sense of urgency. To be sure, the candidates did take note of the imminent possibility of a Greek default, the potential need to shore up the banks, perhaps to take partial control of them. Neither went so far as Montebourg's "mise sous tutelle," but then both are Socialists in the mold of Jacques Delors, not Jules Guesde.
Others reacted more strongly to the debates than I did. Arun Kapil changed his vote from Hollande to Aubry. Mediapart's correspondent saw "Sarkozyste" journalists who did not know their stuff in cahoots with Hollande, their preferred candidate. I saw nothing of the kind, nor did I observe marked stylistic differences between the two candidates. I wish some media coach would break them of their ENA-induced habit of answering every question in numbered paragraphs: "On the banks, I would do 3 things. 1) .... 2) ... On layoffs, my plan includes 4 parts: 1) ... 2) ..." I'm less exigent than General de Gaulle. I'm not asking for poetry, just for a little breathing space, an indication that on some issues, the choices are not clear-cut, uncertainty is paramount, and what matters is not a fully articulated plan of action but a sense of the candidate's appreciation of the difficulties and inevitable trade-offs. A candidate able to convey such thoughtful realism would give voters a person to vote for rather than a position paper. I hope that the eventual nominee will develop such a faculty in the course of the campaign. It isn't une gauche dure that I want, pace Martine Aubry; it's une gauche pensante. What I saw Wednesday night was une gauche percutante, une gauche des dossiers, but not the birth of a statesman.
Between Aubry and Hollande I have no strong preference, only a slight hunch that Hollande would make the stronger candidate against Sarkozy. Assuming that Valls' voters go mainly to Hollande and that Royal's endorsement of Hollande carries some weight with her camp, Aubry has a large deficit to make up, and she would need to take the lion's share of Montebourg's vote to do so. Of course there is no guarantee that the people who vote in round 2 will be the same who voted in round 1. And as Arun Kapil's change of heart indicates, there can even be defections within the camps of the two leaders. So I am glad I do not have to predict Sunday's outcome. I think it will be tight.
P.S. A comparison of last night's Socialist debate with the previous night's Republican Party debate in the US is enough to make one weep for America. The French debaters may have been a little too intelligent, a little too well-informed, but the Republicans ranged from the ignorant (Rick Perry placed the American Revolution in the 16th c.) to the deplorable. What a contrast. Mitt Romney might last 15 minutes in a French debate format; the rest of them would be laughed off the stage.