Oft elitist French elections try a town-hall style

The "judges" – among them a factory worker, a businessman, and a job-hunting college student – were seated under a canopy of television lights. At exactly 8:50 p.m., a throbbing soundtrack filled the studio.

Everyone sat up straighter. Cameras rolled. From stage left, the petitioner – aka presidential candidate Ségolène Royal – strode to a podium.

She smiled and squared her shoulders. And for the next two hours, live on French television last Thursday night, she fielded questions from citizen-judges. Power to the people! Here was direct democracy in action.

That, at least, was the idea of the show, called "For You to Judge," on the state-owned channel France 2. It is one of a spate of new programs that feature "real people," rather than journalists or experts, interrogating candidates running in next month's presidential election.

While such broadcasts have proved immensely popular, drawing up to 9 million viewers, critics say the town-hall format has trivialized what should be a sober, profound debate on weighty national issues.

"This is participatory democracy," enthused Ms. Royal, who was adept at maneuvering around the audience's questions and shrugging off appeals from the moderator to speak concisely. "It brings the candidates and the people closer."

But in a campaign already widely criticized as superficial and media-driven, the tendency of ordinary folk featured on the new political shows to focus on their personal problems has drawn criticism. More often than not, they use their air time to complain about the size of their pensions rather than grill the politicians about the national debt.

"This election has become completely 'mediatique,' with the candidates as media icons," said Erwan Lecoeur, a political analyst at the Observatory of Public Debate, a Paris think tank. "They spend more time answering questions about health-insurance payments for eyeglasses than about foreign affairs."

The queries were a bit more serious on "For You to Judge" (À Vous de Juger) last week. But they were not what might be called hardball questions and, like her rivals who have appeared on similar shows, Royal stayed in control of the conversation.

The experience left a sour taste for Monique Khayat, the principal of a public high school in Paris who was chosen by the station's staff as one of the questioners.

She had challenged the candidate about working conditions and pay for teachers, then listened skeptically as Royal criticized the present right-wing government for cutting 125,000 education positions over the past five years.

"So you would add 125,000 positions back?" interrupted Ms. Khayat, in one of the program's rare adversarial comebacks.

"Well, not 125,000 by the start of the next school year," responded Royal. She recovered quickly, however, and said that, if elected, she would certainly try to reinstate 5,000 education-sector jobs.

After the show, Khayat described herself as less than satisfied. "Madame Royal didn't answer the questions, she wasn't clear, and her statements went on and on and on," she said.

The format has highlighted the divergent styles of the candidates. Front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy, a lawyer, managed to respond to 46 questions on the show. Centrist candidate François Bayrou, a former teacher who is prone to lecturing, answered only 27 questions during his appearance.

Past presidential campaigns in France have featured more conventional television appearances by candidates who were questioned by journalists and editorial writers. The big event has always been the traditional live debate between the two candidates who won the most votes in the first round and faced each other in the runoff election.

Those events were considered models of gravity and eloquent language, so much so that a popular new theater production in Paris features two actors reenacting the 1974 and 1981 debates of two former French presidents, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterrand.

The trend this time around is a preference for virtual campaigns that cut out the journalists or experts. The candidates all have websites featuring edited videos of their campaign appearances. Nearly all of them have blogs, and they purport to personally answer the questions posed online.

It's a short jump from interactive blogging to televised question-and-answer sessions with panels of real-life citizens, according to critics.

"As applied to the media, 'participatory democracy' is nothing but an efficient way [for politicians] to escape confrontation," said Christophe Barbier, editor of the newsmagazine L'Express, in a recent interview.

Reporters from France's public television stations have also been grumbling. Last month, a group of them started a national petition drive to demand standard face-to-face debates that are moderated by journalists.

By leaving the questioning to the public, they said, broadcasters were simply giving candidates a soapbox for two hours of canned speeches and uninterrupted monologues.

Still, the televised encounters between ordinary people and politicians have produced moments of drama and even pathos.

The private channel TF 1 has a program called, "I Have a Question to Ask You," which is like a televised focus group. One hundred people are selected by a consulting company to be demographically, socially, and ethnically representative of the nation as a whole. They fire questions at the candidates for more than two hours.

Last month, Interior Minister Sarkozy, the candidate of the main right-wing political party, confronted Hakim Khenfer. The 25-year-old carpenter from a suburb of Tours recounted how he had been handcuffed, forced to his knees, and treated as a "dirty foreigner" by police officers checking his identity papers. Sarkozy responded by promising the audience a complete investigation – and, to Mr. Khenfer's subsequent embarrassment, he acted with unprecedented speed.

Two days after his television appearance, Khenfer was summoned by the inspector general of the police to tell his story. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember the exact date of the incident, a lapse that was fully reported in the French papers.

"I never asked to have my own case resolved," Khenfer said. "I'm just fighting in the name of everyone who is a victim of racial profiling."

In a subsequent session of the program later in the month, Royal was confronted by someone who felt unjustly treated in another way. Bernard Bontron, a 60-year-old man confined to a wheelchair. He wanted to know how she would help the handicapped. At one point, speaking of how the disabled are treated, he nearly broke down in tears.

Royal immediately left the podium, crossed the studio, and touched his arm in a show of sympathy seen in living rooms all across France.

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