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Analysis & Commentary

Dennis Trudeau

Handicapping the debate.
June 14th, 2004

Dennis Trudeau
Dennis Trudeau  
A former Bloc Québécois MP handicaps the leaders going into the French television debate.

The four major leaders in the campaign get down to television debating tonight. The debate in French goes first, today, then in English on Tuesday.

The debate can be a turning point for any campaign and any leader, and as I was writing this last week, Liberal Party Leader Paul Martin had taken a day off. Perhaps he was taking some time off to get ready.

All the leaders do take time off to prepare. They get their briefing notes down pat and do dry runs readying answers to the questions and snappy comebacks for what the other leaders might come up with.

While they get prepare for their debates, I have found something to get you viewers ready to watch them.

An outspoken former MP for the Bloc Québécois, Pierrette Venne, has already weighed in with a blunt analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the four contenders in the French debate and her prediction on a winner.

The debate in French is a different animal from the one in English, traditionally because some of the leaders are debating in a language which is not their mother tongue. And that's a real handicap.

Venne's analysis will be useful to anyone who plans to follow the French debate, either in the original on Radio-Canada and le Reseau de l'information RDI from Radio Canada or with simultaneous translation on Newsworld.

It is important to know, before you read what Venne has to say, that she is no friend of Bloc Leader Gille Duceppe. He kicked her out of the Bloc caucus two years ago. And she said Duceppe was leading by "reign of terror."

Pierrette Venne is blunt and plain-spoken, So here's a summary of what she says about the leaders and their potential performances in the French debate.

Jack Layton
He has the most charisma of the four, but there is not much competition in the charisma department from the other three. The debate will be a good chance for him to put some content in his image. With no real experience in federal politics and expressing himself in rough French, he'll come out dead last.

Stephen Harper
He's got experience in federal politics and will be a tough opponent–in the English debate. Even if his French is acceptable, he's leading a party with no roots yet in Quebec and with politics considered too far right for a primarily social-democratic electorate (in Quebec.). Given the special political context in Quebec, finishing third in the debate is an honorable outcome.

Paul Martin
He describes himself as a Quebecer of Franco-Ontarian origins even though he grew up in English. He has everything to gain and everything to lose. Given the exhaustion of months of crisis management, the frustration of a campaign that isn't clicking … the feeling his career is on the line and his mediocre French, the debate is torture for him. Second-place finish at best, not a comforting thought.

Gilles Duceppe
Two things in his favour; He is the only one whose mother tongue is French and the only one of the four who has TV debate experience–this is his third. He need only stay above the fray to continue to benefit from the Liberal collapse. Unless of course Jacques Parizeau gives him a banana peel to slip on and you can be sure Parizeau will be under close surveillance for the next few days. Duceppe just has to keep his sovereignty option under a bushel and he comes out the winner… by default.

So, there you have the essence of Pierrette Venne's view of the debate in French Monday night. She originally wrote this in La Presse.

A couple of things to add, though. Venne may be underestimating Stephen Harper.The book on Mr. Harper is that people tend to do this. And in the past few days, a number of francophone Quebecers have told me they are impressed with Harper's progress in French.

It may also surprise you that Venne gives Paul Martin such a poor mark in French. But there too, a number of commentators have pointed out in the past few days that the tougher the campaign gets, the more difficulty Mr. Martin appears to have in clearly expressing his message in French as well as in English.

And a final caveat. Mr. Duceppe may not have such an easy time of it in the debate as Pierrette Venne suggests. All the speculation about a minority Conservative government in need of support from the Bloc means it will be in the interests of Mr. Martin and Mr. Layton to bring up the fact the Bloc leader is at the controls of a party that believes in sovereignty for Quebec. They can use this against Mr. Harper too, because the Bloc and the Conservative leaders have been playing a tentative game of footsy through the media about how they would operate in a minority Parliament.

All in all, it should make for an interesting debate.

Past Columns

Since joining the CBC in 1979, Dennis Trudeau has hosted a number of radio and television programs. He joined Newswatch, Montreal's flagship television newscast, in the fall of 1987. Trudeau has anchored the news through the Oka Crisis, the Meech Lake talks, Quebec elections and the sovereignty referendum. He now hosts Canada Now for CBC Montreal.

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