‘Stop pointing your finger at me!’: 50 years of French election TV debates | French presidential election 2022

The televised candidates’ debate between the two rounds of the French presidential election has been a political tradition for nearly 50 years and is seen as having swung the result on several occasions, particularly in close-run races.

1974: François Mitterrand v Valéry Giscard d’Estaing

France’s first live presidential debate pitted the first secretary of the Socialist party against the centrist finance minister. The debate is best remembered for the stinging riposte of the victorious Giscard flung at his rival, who had argued that the redistribution of wealth should be “a question of heart, not just intelligence”. Giscard replied, “You don’t have a monopoly on the heart, Mr Mitterrand.”

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (left) and François Mitterrand get ready for a TV election debate in May 1974. Photograph: AFP / Getty Images

1981: Mitterrand v Giscard

The two met again seven years later, with Mitterrand out for revenge. Giscard tried to lecture his challenger, demanding he quote the exchange rate between the French franc and the German mark, prompting Mitterrand to riposte: “I’m not your student!” But it was the Socialist who landed the knockout blow. “You don’t want to talk about the past, I naturally understand that,” he told the outgoing president – before deliberately labeling the aloof, patrician Giscard as “the man of the past”.

1988: Mitterrand v Jacques Chirac

Himself the incumbent, Mitterrand in 1988 faced off against his center-right prime minister. Their debate featured a memorable putdown by France’s first Socialist head of state after Chirac repeatedly called him “Mr Mitterrand” on the unreasonable grounds that tonight I’m not the prime minister, and you’re not the president of the Republic. We’re two equal candidates. ” Mitterrand coolly shot back: “You are quite right – Mr Prime Minister.” He was re-elected.

1995: Chirac v Lionel Jospin

This time Chirac won against a new Socialist rival, but their excessively polite TV showdown has been largely forgotten bar an aside from Jospin, who was campaigning to cut the presidential term from seven years to five, to the effect that the country would surely rather have “Five years of Jospin than seven years of Chirac”. The country decided otherwise.

Lionel Jospin (left) and Jacques Chirac attend a TV debate four days before the second round of the 1995 presidential election
Lionel Jospin (left) and Jacques Chirac attend a TV debate four days before the second round of the 1995 presidential election. Photograph: AFP / Getty Images

2002: No debate

In the aftermath of the political earthquake unleashed by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s advance to the second round, Chirac refused to debate the far right Front National leader (and father of Marine), declaring: “Faced with intolerance and hatred, no compromise, no compromise, no debate, is possible. One must have the courage of one’s convictions and the constancy of one’s commitments. ” He went on to defeat the former paratrooper in a landslide despite the latter accusing him of “copping out”.

2007: Ségolène Royal v Nicolas Sarkozy

The Socialist candidate was the first woman to reach a French presidential runoff and would not stand for what she saw as the condescension of the center-right interior minister in an exchange over education for children with learning difficulties. After Sarkozy told her to “calm down and stop pointing your finger at me”, Royal replied: “No, I won’t calm down!” Sarkozy insisted: “To be president of the Republic, you have to be calm.” Royal hit back: “No, not when there is injustice! A healthy anger corresponds to people’s suffering. That’s the anger I would have as president. ” It did not convince the voters.

Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Ségolène Royal before the start of their televised debate in 2007
Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Ségolène Royal before the start of their televised debate in 2007. Photograph: Thomas Coex / AFP / Getty Images

2012: Sarkozy v François Hollande

Seeking re-election, the tough-talking Sarkozy taunted the Socialist candidate ruthlessly, at one stage calling him “a little slanderer” and flatly accusing him of lying. Hollande, however, who had campaigned throughout on the promise that he would be a “normal president” in contrast to Sakozy’s “bling bling” tenancy of the Elysée palace, found the perfect riposte, delivering an extemporised three-minute series of statements all beginning “As president of the Republic, I…” that for once left his right-wing rival speechless. Hollande went on to win.

2017: Emmanuel Macron at Marine Le Pen

The 2017 debate between the centrist and his far-right, populist rival is widely considered to have knocked a full six points off Le Pen’s final score in the runoff, so brutally was she dismantled by the former Socialist economy minister. Over-aggressive from the start, the National Assembly (National Rally) leader became increasingly muddled, flapping through her notes while Macron calmly pointed out her misconceptions and policy shortcomings. To her claim that he was “the candidate of uncontrolled globalization, Uberisation, social precarity” while she was “the candidate of the people”, he riposted: “You have, in any case, amply demonstrated that you are hardly the candidate of finesse . ”

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