Duel of the hopefuls
Paris—Two men share a common ambition :• to be the next President of France. On my right, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, forty-five years old, Minister of Finance, and leader of the Independent Republican party. On my left, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, forty-six years old, general secretary of the Radical party. Last week they were invited to cross swords before the television cameras. Since then the encounter has become the favourite topic of conversation of all those who take politics seriously.
The programme in which they appeared is a new idea. Two champions are invited to agree upon a subject and then each to pre- pare a fifteen-minute film to describe their respective approaches to it. Viewers see the two films at the beginning of the programme, and then watch a debate between the pro- tagonists lasting a whole hour. Firially a studio audience cross-questions them for half an hour—two hours in all. Quite a pro- gramme fOr a serious subject.
The first attempt was a fiasco. Michel Debre, Minister of Defence, and Jacques Duclos, the Communist leader, agreed to discuss 'the idea of the nation.' The result was old hat: the prickly nationalism of Debre sounded as outmoded as the resistance memories of Duclos. Nevertheless the audience-rating was high. Clearly the con- cept was all right: it was just a question of getting some more forward-looking stars.
No one would deny that Giscard is for- ward-looking. He is a classic example of seemingly effortless success. He was born with a fairly solid golden spoon in his mouth. His father was a top civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, and his grandfather a deputy with a good safe constituency. But he had plenty of native wit as well. At school he took all the prizes, rounding off his educa- tion with a spell at two of the grander ecoles—first the Polytechnique, and then the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. Ile was elected to the National Assembly at thirty- one, under-secretary at the Finance Ministry at thirty-three, and Minister of Finance at thirty-six. He has not wasted much time.
Up to 1967 he served in the government of General de Gaulle. But he always refused to join the Gaullists. and last year he voted non in the referendum which led to the General's departure. Following which he promptly aligned hiinself with M Pompidou and was, in due course. rewarded with the return of his old portfolio.
Servan-Schreiber comes from a remark- ably similar background and is also a pro- duct of the Polytechnique. A fighter pilot with the Free French. he launched a weekly, l'Express, at thirty-three. Two years later he took the risk of turning it into a daily to back Pierre Mendes-France. Mendes-France fell, and l'Express went back to a weekly format dedicated to ending the -war in Algeria: Then, when the war ended, PExpresc was transformed, finally into a Time-style 'news magazine'.
The circulation mounted. and so did the profits. (France has no commercial tele- vision.) And in his editorials Servan- Schreiber began to outline his plans for up- setting -the cosy–little political twosome be-
tween the Gaullists and the Communists. He wanted to see the non-communist left get together on a platform of genuinely modern proposals, and he longed to take part him- self. Yet he also found time to write a book, The American Challenge (le Defi antericain), which has broken all records for a work of non-fiction in France, and sold almost as well in Germany, the United States and many other countries.
Last November Servan-Schreiber became the general secretary of the Radical party, that great monument of the Third Republic, the party of Gambetta and Clemenceau: a party that had, since then, gone quietly to sleep. Now it has woken up. Animated dis- cussion has revived, and the journalists have found their way back to the party head- quarters in the Place Valois which they had almost forgotten. The old hands were shaken by Servan-Schreiber's party manifesto; nevertheless a party congress approved it last month. It is an ambitious document, like its author; entitled Land and Sky, it is also well on the way to becoming a best-seller.
So the two men, d'Estaing and Servan- Schreiber, agreed to the confrontation. But choosing a subject was more difficult. Giscard proposed 'the new society'. But that is the slogan of the Prime Minister, Chaban- Delmas, so Servan-Schreiber wasn't playing. He suggested, instead, 'money'. Giscard turned that down flat. Finally the two agreed on 'equality of opportunity'.
First we had the films. Servan-Schreiber, as a journalist, knew how to tell a story. So he took two children, Marcel, son of a worker, and Arnaud, a product of the establishment, and showed how at each stage in life Arnaud got the opportunities and Marcel took the knocks. Giscard, by con- trast, chose a somewhat literary discourse, written by himself and read by a young negro. Round one to the Radical.
Next, the discussion. Giscard's eye lit up: one could almost hear the grey cells clicking into position behind his high forehead. Servan-Schreiber seemed less at ease, and more aggressive.
He tried to demonstrate his fundamental disagreement with the Finance Minister, while Giscard sought to suggest that all that lay between them was a proper understand- ing of modern technology. The first half- hour undoubtedly went to Giscard.
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Then the Finance Minister made a mis- take. He asked Servan-Schreiber to explain his ideas about the reform of the laws governing inheritance. This was what the Radical had been waiting for. It was the point on which his manifesto had been most fiercely attacked, and so it was the ground on which he had most carefully prepared his defence. Recovering his self-assurance, he briskly explained that he regarded it as absurd to tax estates of as little as £7,500; inequitable to vary the rate of tax according to whether the heir is the son of the legatee or not; and scandalous that a child should only pay a top rate of 20 per cent on his parents' fortune. Thus the second half-hour went to Servan-Schreiber. The period of audience-participation was a bit of a flop, as the questions were too diffuse. Call it a draw.
But taking the programme as a whole both men contrived to win. Giscard showed that there was more to him than just a competent Finance Minister. Whether it was education. housing, farming, or working conditions in the factories the leader of the Independent Republicans (sixty-two deputies out of 385) was at his ease. So much so that most viewers must have been left with the feeling that President Pompidou would not have to look far for a Prime Minister if M. Chaban- Delmas happened to fall under a bus. • Servan-Schreiber for his part, emerged as a remarkable ideas-man. And of course it is precisely an ideas-man that the French left is crying out for, after its years of squab- bling, if it is to stand a chance of regroup- ing itself in preparation for the next general election. And provided a regrouping of the left does come about it looks very much as if these two men will start with equal chances —chances, that is, for the .race to the top.