My thoughts on the #elxn41 French #db8: A Good Night for Ignatieff & Duceppe.

General Overview & Critical Opinion

The French language debate was everything the English language debate last night was not: exciting, passionate, substantive. Each of the leaders was able to get his party’s platform point across. Viewers and listeners got a real sense of where the candidates stand on a wide variety of issues concerning French Canada.

What I didn’t see was listeners and viewers as participants. This is necessary to engage the “Social Media Generation” that I talk about below. This was a very traditional and competently argued debate. But it didn’t take the genre forward to meet the needs and demands of the social media savvy electorate.

Other failings: Francophones outside Quebec and First Nations people were excluded. A terrible injustice. Silencing their voices doesn’t make them go away or cease to be Canadian. They need representation in future debate.

While there was no clear winner, Mr. Ignatieff posed the greatest improvement from his performance in the English debate the night before. Mr. Duceppe owned the show, Mr. Layton was competent in his usual jokey and self-righteous way. The surprise of the night was a petulant and weak showing by the Prime Minister: a stark contrast to the command performance he delivered in the English debate.

The moderators – a definite asset

The debate’s moderators, Anne-Marie Dussault and Paul Larocque, were active and engaged. They kept the leaders focused, and often provoked them into going into more depth on specific points that they were making. They were also quick to interrupt the leaders if they started rambling or speaking too long. Very successful.

The set – a definite liability

First of all, the set was very unattractive. The colours and pattern were distracting from the leaders. In fact, the colours were close to skin tone and made the leaders fade into the background for me. Not successful.

Also, there was a sound quality problem that I noticed this time around as well. The sound was better tonight than during the English language debate, but it was still relatively poor quality. This was very disappointing. One would expect a consortium of Canada’s national broadcasters to do better.

Camera angles: perceived improvement

The camera angles felt a little different tonight. There were fewer wide shots including all the leaders. There were more occasions to have a good full-frontal look at the leaders as they interacted. It fest more natural and more conversational. Not sure if this is just my perception and not reality, but that is how it felt.

Body Language – Standing, pointing, shrugging, staring

The leaders used body language much more effectively last night. The fact that they were standing seemed less constraining for some reason than the night before.

Mr Ignatieff looked natural and comfortable. His shoulders were relaxed, his arms held in a casual way on the sides of his body.

Mr. Layton was his usual animated self: lots of grand gestures and bobbing up and down.

Mr. Duceppe was back to his usual comfortable self, unlike the nervous, “removed” and hunched posture he had in the English debate.

Mr. Harper was the one who looked stiff and robotic last night – he wasn’t comfortable and had the same uncomfortable posture that Mr. Ignatieff had in the English debate. The roles were completely reversed.

The facial expressions were engaging and natural. There wasn’t a feeling that the leaders loathe one another like there was in the English debate. There felt like that there was more respect and collegiality – something that was completely lacking in the English debate.

Quality of the Leaders’ “French Personalities”

It is amazing how people can seem to have a different personality in a second language.

Mr. Layton did not. He was almost exactly the same in French as in English: a little poncy, a little self-righteous, but generally friendly and engaging. His uvular “r” (the throaty R that French people use) was a little too strong. There were many comments on Twitter that made fun of the fact that he was over-emphasizing it.

Mr. Harper was transformed in French. His usually sardonic and bored tone changed into a sybillant, lispy, soft boyish voice that was actually quit disarming. The Prime Minister sounded almost beseeching, as though he really wanted listeners to like him. This is in contrast with the commanding, imperious and dismissive tone he used in the English debate. The softness of “French Stephen” was a discovery.

Mr. Ignatieff was transformed. He was focused, commanding and engaging. He got his ideas out in a powerful and passionate tone, with a lot of authenticity and sincerity. French seems to become Mr. Ignatieff: very impressive. He sounded like the sincere, open and candid man that has been so successful at engaging crowds and inspiring people during the first two weeks of the campaign.

Mr. Duceppe was on his home territory in French. he did very well, as expected. But he didn’t have as spectacular an advantage over Mr. Ignatieff whose French is excellent and Messers Layton and Harper whose French is very good.

A debate among equals

Perhaps it was the softness and desire to be liked of  ‘French Harper”, or perhaps it was that the other leaders were more focused on being engaging, but tonight’s debate felt very much like a debate among equals. This was closer to the sort of more human behaviour that it would have been nice to see in the English debate. This allowed the leaders’ personalities to come out, their visions to be elaborated, and their challenges to one another rebutted.

The Issues – Highlights

It stands to reason that a debate in French would address the concerns of French Canadians.

The discussion of issue of Quebec as a nation in Canada was interesting. Ignatieff and Harper both said they recognise the status of Quebec as a nation. Mr Layton did too. Mr Ignatieff had a great line: “I believe that Quebecers should be able to define themselves – within Canada – as Canadian and Quebecers in whatever order they choose.”

There is a problem with this nation-recognising love-in, however. It ties into the criticism I make below of the place of the francophones who live outside of Quebec. What is their place in this definition of Quebec nationhood?

The constitution was a big focus in this debate, with a fairly detailed discussion started by Mr. Duceppe’s comment that Quebec had never actually signed it. Other points were employment, where Duceppe scored one of his traditional zingers: “Of course this is about jobs. When has it not been about jobs?” The fighter jets issues was treated in a more substantive way too.

Policy platforms were presented effectively

One of my biggest criticisms of Messers Ignatieff and Layton in the English debate was they didn’t discuss their respective party platforms in any detail. I found that in fact they managed to highlight all of the Conservative platform policies, even simply by mentioning them over and over – not mentioning their own policies.

They fixed this in the French debate. Mr. Ignatieff was successful in weaing his platform policy points into his answers and challenges to the other leaders. Mr. Layton was a little less successful this way – he didn’t get the substance of the NDP platform across effectively.

Duceppe vs. Layton: no real fireworks.

Many observers (me included) were expecting more fireworks between Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe. This plays in Mr. Duceppe’s favour. Mr. Layton did very little during the debate to make inroads into the social democratic “soft and moderate left” voter base that the Bloc Québécois owns in Quebec. However, neither was Mr. Duceppe really able to paint Mr. Layton as a solid federalist. I would call this one a stalemate. In practical terms, that means: “Advantage-Duceppe”.

Francophones outside Québec – Completely ignored

There are many Francophones outside of Quebec. They constitute a diverse mosaic of cultures and linguistic difference that stretches from the Acadians of the Maritimes, to the Franco-Ontarians of Windsor, Penetanguishene, ON, and Northern Ontario; to the diverse francophone communities of African, Caribbean, Arab, Asian and Oceanic descent that inhabit Toronto; to the Francophones of the prairies; and of, course the many francophone who live in BC and the Great North: NWT, Yukon, Nunavut.

Where were these people represented in the debate? Do they not exist? Excuse me, but they do, and they form vibrant communities that have made massive historical contributions to the Canadian identity, economy and culture. They continue to shape Canada today. They deserve better.

Here’s a radical thought: perhaps the Bloc Québecois should expand their mandate beyond Quebec and start representing the interests, anxieties and concerns of this vast group of francophones who feel completely abandoned as the BQ focuses the definition of the “French Fact” on Quebec exclusively. This would help them make Quebec issues more relevant to the rest of Canada.

First Nations People – Missing again

Even if you want to make the case that this debate was about French issues, you cannot ignore the powerful voice of First Nations people in Quebec and the rest of French Canada. The absence of First Nations question askers, and the lack of substantive discussion of the place of First Nations people in French Canadian culture was terrible.

First Nations people need their own debate.

Perhaps we need a special debate that will put the leaders into a First Nations mindset. Let’s see APTN host it. Let it be done according to a set of ecumenical First Nations cultural norms (there are many diverse First Nations cultures in Canada). That would be refreshing. That would enable Canadians to see the country from the perspective of one of our three founding peoples.

A few comments on format.

The 6 minute focused interaction idea is ok, but randomly assigning the theme is not. It ends up with mismatches or with candidates being assigned a topic that they agree upon. Asking Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton to debate social welfare is really splitting hairs – both are leaders of socially democratic and socially progressive parties.

Drop the dubbing? Please yes. Give viewers subtitles.

Many anglophone Canadians won’t tune into the French debate because it is in French. But this is not a core group. The larger disincentive to watch is the dubbing. It is horrible, distracting and annoying. Why did Stephen Harper have a lispy interpreter who was hard to understand? Why did Michael Ignatieff speak with a British accent? Why did Jack Layton sound Scottish? Why was Duceppe the only one with a manly Canadian accent? The dubbing was strange, amateurish and very off-putting.

A simple solution: have a French-language option, set on a slight lag, to allow for live sub-titling. This is possible. One only has to see how good some journalists are at “live-blogging” to see that it can be done.

“Live Subtitling” in future French debates please. It is more inclusive and less annoying.

Look and Feel – the Internet demographic demand collegial behaviour!

Having the leaders stand is a bad idea. I actually think they should be sitting in comfortable chairs or at least around a table. This will encourage collegial exchange and more “human” presentation. The social media interactions people have been having with candidates have been very casual and conversational. Standing is not natural – have them sit down. Give them a cuppa tea or coffee each, some notepads, and let’s have a great conversation about who should lead Canada’s future. This aggressive, “debate is war” metaphor doesn’t work with the Internet generation: and that generation includes Millenials, many retired people (55+, especially women). The “Social Media Generation” is both young and old – the leadrs dismiss the social media generation in the same way they dismiss youth to their peril.

This isn’t a question of smarmy use of Internet lingo – that is inauthentic and insincere: it won’t work (hint to Mr. Layton).

You want more participation – start catering more to the personal, human, conversation, inclusive, collegial zeitgeist of the “Social Media Generation – Young and Old.”

This is important – the debate organizers should pay heed to it.

So, who won? Duceppe – but he doesn’t matter that much.

Well, Mr. Duceppe won, but he is really a non-entity outside Quebec.

Apart from him, the latest polls from Nik Nanos are showing that the Liberals and NDP have made gains. Most polls are showing Mr. Ignatieff coming second after Mr. Duceppe.

Debates matter. They are the true start of any political campaign.

Now the leaders have the challenge of taking the debate momentum into the crucial final two weeks before election day.

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