Paris’s political grand finale at the Player’s Bar

Reporter's Notebook: Sarkozy and Hollande spar at ‘The Debate’ as all of France watches.

SarkozyHollande (photo credit: Valentine Bourrat)
(photo credit: Valentine Bourrat)
PARIS – The Player’s Bar on Rue de Montmartre is the biggest bar I have ever come across in Paris, or anywhere else for that matter, with an endless number of rooms, serving bars, stairs and floors, and also the most TV screens I have ever seen. On all the walls, windows and doors, posters were stuck: “The Debate, 2012,” and “François Hollande Présidentielle 2012.”
Ever since 1974, “The Debate” has been a tradition of the electoral campaign, and this time 20 million French people watched. After seven months of hard confrontation, the protagonists – Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande – were ruthless toward each other.
Serge Moati, a well-known TV presenter, announced the debate before the start as “a very republican moment.” Segolène Royal, who debated with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and was defeated, qualified it as “a moment of truth.”
The duel itself was a very well managed event, held in a vast studio at Saint-Denis near the Stade de France, which hosted the World Cup Final in 1998.
I was invited to dinner and to watch the debate by members of my family, Marc Cheifetz and Annick Cebeau, a couple of convinced “Sarkozyites” from Montmartre Street. Everybody here in Paris on Wednesday night was meeting up one way or another to see the political performance.
I watched the debate with my hosts, until about halfway through, when the duties of journalism struck. Malika Salim, a friend of Sarkozy’s UMP party, sent me an email containing a list of cafés and other public places showing the debate in front of supporters. Outside, it was raining and I hesitated as to which direction to take the Metro: to a brasserie on one side of the city, in the 8th arrondissement, or to a school of journalism on De Passy Street.
Across the street, the Player’s Bar, where I had never been. Many people standing outside holding glasses of beer, TV cameras, moving spots of lights, noise. I went in and when I was asked to present my press card, register and get a badge, I realized that I had just become a very happy journalist. It was more than a café showing the debate to a few customers; this was the main event organized by the Federation of the Young Socialists of Paris, and they wanted to watch the debate together in a pre-victory party mood.
“We are 800 people here,” Loubna the beautiful young barmaid told me smiling.
“The question of immigration is one of the reasons I didn’t vote for Sarkozy in the first round,” she said, while serving beer at the bar.
“I am happy to be here tonight, among people who are thinking like me,” said a young customer named Chloé.
Michael, a 24-year-old student of international institutional cooperation, added that he was “scared for François Hollande,” but he is now quite his hero who “managed well” in the debate.
On the stairs, I met Lucie, 45, who has been a member of the Socialist Party since 2007 after having been “so disgusted” to see Sarkozy in the debate of that year with Royal. She hated his personality, even before he had done anything, she said.
Anne Hidalgo, the deputy mayor of Paris, was there with all her supporters.
“François Hollande dominated the debate, and Nicolas Sarkozy was the challenger. He’s aggressive as usual!” she claimed.
Marc Benchetrit, a 65-yearold retired professor of management, watched the debate at his home in Saint-Priest near Lyon.
“Fascinating. I have discovered a real president in [Hollande],” said Benchetrit. He voted for Sarkozy in 2007.
In front of the two main journalists of French TV – Laurence Ferari from TF1 and David Pujadas from France 2 – the two protagonists battled over a wide range of subjects. Economic, political and international affairs were all covered.
The general impression was that, as usual, Sarkozy was aggressive, energetic and a master of the subjects, but also a bit nervous. Quieter in his delivery, Hollande was, predictably, more critical of the past five years, giving a controversial assessment of his rival’s performance.
“I have been compared to Franco, Petain, Laval, and why not to Hitler,” Sarkozy complained after reminding everybody that Martine Aubry, a prominent figure in the Socialist Party, had already compared him to Bernard Madoff, the former American financier who conned people out of billions of dollars.
“I was not in power in the US, in Spain, and there was a crisis there too... About Germany, you say now that Germany has a better record than us, but you are not ready to take any measures they took,” Sarkozy claimed.
Hollande attacked his rival on the “politics of division” and his attitude toward Muslims in France. He pointed his finger at the national debt, which has doubled since 2002 to reach 1.8 trillion euros, and the rise in unemployment.
Every sentence from Hollande was, of course, received with thunderous applause from the audience in the Player’s Bar who, at the end, chanted like spectators at a soccer match: “WE WON! WE WON!”
When the organizers at the bar finally announced that Hollande, who had been expected to arrive from Saint- Denis for a drink after the debate, would not be coming since it was too late, people did not show their disappointment, and instead proceeded to dance the night away.