Macron May Need a Page From Bill Clinton’s Playbook to Out-Debate Le Pen

  • Macron’s wordiness in speeches limits his appeal to voters
  • Le Pen bludgeons her opponent with simple, direct phrases

France’s presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron may need to study Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign war-room board before his face-to-face television debate with rival Marine Le Pen on Wednesday.

Clinton’s strategist James Carville put down four winning rules in the now-famous sign at his Little Rock, Arkansas, campaign headquarters. One of them read: “The Debate Stupid.” Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, worked on conveying his ideas in folksy, accessible terms, using short sentences and gestures for emphasis -- skills that not only got him elected, but make him a prized speaker even now.

Le Pen and Macron

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Macron, who faces the far-right candidate Le Pen in their first and only face-to-face debate on May 3, may need to take a leaf out of Clinton’s playbook.

The centrist candidate’s technocratic vocabulary and verbose, long-winded sentences may make it hard for him to win over voters, especially as he faces a populist rival who speaks in emotionally charged soundbites. Le Pen, who has already called Macron the “candidate of oligarchs” and bankers, is likely to slam him for what she says is his incapacity to connect with ordinary people.

“Le Pen can attack Macron on the elitist aspects of his candidacy,” said Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, a communications consultant and professor at SciencesPo in Paris. “She does better with the working classes, he is by far better among the well-educated. The risk is that the debate turns into a confrontation between globalization and anti-globalization in which victory isn’t sewn up, meaning there can still be a surprise on Sunday.”

Although he has a lead of about 20 points over Le Pen, the stakes are high for Macron. The two candidates are going head-on, letting about half the electorate that didn’t vote for either of them in the first round make their decisions for the runoff on May 7.

Showcasing Differences

The 2 1/2-hour television debate will be used by the two candidates to showcase their differences -- of which there are many. While Le Pen wants France to close its borders and turn its back on the euro and the European Union, Macron sees the country well ensconced in Europe and is confident of its ability to thrive in a globalized world.

Viewers, however, may focus less on what is said -- since the candidates’ stands are well known -- than how it’s said. That’s Macron’s challenge.

"When he speaks, I just don’t understand him,” said Isabelle Suplisson, 48, a hairdresser in Paris’s working-class 20th arrondissement, who voted for Francois Fillon in the first round and may abstain on May 7. “Maybe I’m too stupid for Mr. Macron."

Click here for live coverage of tonight’s debate

France’s presidential debates -- inspired by the first U.S. one between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 -- have often delivered the iconic moments of election campaigns.

Debate History

The country’s first-ever presidential debate in 1974 produced one of the most memorable lines, when centrist Valery Giscard d’Estaing cut short a monologue by Francois Mitterrand, telling him “you do not have a monopoly of the heart.” In his autobiography, Giscard attributed his victory to that line.

Mitterrand -- seeking re-election in 1988 -- scored a zinger of his own when his premier Jacques Chirac suggested that neither man be referred to by their titles. Mitterrand retorted, “You are totally correct, Mr. Prime Minister,” putting his challenger in his place. Mitterrand won the election easily.

In 2007, Segolene Royal lost her cool as she talked about the care of handicapped children. “Calm down, don’t point your finger,” Nicolas Sarkozy said. “To be the President, you must keep your cool.” She lost. 

Sarkozy himself was defeated in 2012 after Francois Hollande effectively used a rhetorical device to show how he -- unlike Sarkozy -- would be an exemplary president, using in a three-minute-long monologue starting each sentence with “I, as president.” The monologue came back to haunt Hollande, who was mocked for it throughout his term.

Macron’s Words

In the debate, the candidates sit face-to-face with a table separating them. Unlike in the U.S., they argue with each other on themes presented by moderators from France’s two main TV channels. There is no live audience. The format has remained unchanged since 1974.

Le Pen has already provided a peek into how she might attack Macron. In the first televised debate of the top five candidates in March, she laughed out loud as Macron laid out his foreign policy proposals.

“But you’ve said nothing,” she said. “You have spoken for seven minutes and you’ve said nothing. It’s a massive nothing... We don’t even know what you want.”

Macron’s sentences tend to be long, with multiple clauses. The 39-year-old, a product of the country’s elite schools, sprinkles his speeches with French authors and philosophers. His delivery can be flat and his sentences sometimes trail off. The candidate, who is fluent in English, uses new-economy vocabulary -- like demotic and disruption -- that leaves sections of his audience confused.

Trained Lawyer

Across the table from Macron on Wednesday will be Le Pen, a trained lawyer and the heiress of a political dynasty whose National Front party is closer than it’s ever been to winning power. Le Pen is a formidable speaker, resorting sometimes to crude language that appeals to some hardcore backers. Like Donald Trump, many of her supporters credit her with “telling it like it is” when it comes to her stands on immigration and Europe.

“Le Pen names things, she talks almost in slogans while Macron has a more complex, intricate speech to unite voters around a project and against the threat of the extreme-right,” said Damon Mayaffre, a linguistics expert and historian at research institute CNRS. “She says nation, patriots, borders, immigration; he says generation, including, wanting or transform.”

Macron’s aide Benjamin Griveaux concedes that Macron’s themes can be complicated, likening the candidate’s thinking to that of former U.S. President Barack Obama.

"He has complex thinking, and things are not that simple." he said. "We take responsibility for it.”

‘Monopoly Money’

The maverick candidate, who created his political party a year ago, shows he’s not afraid of packing a few punches when he chooses to. He hit Le Pen hard at a rally on May 1 over her ever-changing stance on the euro. “What they’re explaining today is that with this monopoly money things will be better,” he said.

Macron is working on his debating skills, his spokesman Christophe Castaner said.

“It’s an issue,” he said. “About 27 million people will be tuning in on Wednesday and the point is to talk to all of them. But we shouldn’t try to oversimplify things either. Macron has a pretty developed vocabulary but what he needs to do is to be concrete and give examples.”

A lot may ride on it. France has held six face-to-face runoff debates since 1974, with an average viewership of 23.3 million. The only time the debate didn’t happen was in 2002 when Chirac refused to sit across Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front party founder and Marine Le Pen’s father.

“I’m looking forward to this debate, to see them face to face,” Suplisson, the hairdresser, said. “Either Macron explains things clearly, tells me and other French people who are not lawyers or doctors what he plans to do or I abstain. Frankly, I don’t want to abstain. So Macron needs to speak plainly. There’s no shame in that.”

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