Mélenchon facing Zemmour: can we debate with the populists?

► “Choose the debate, even if it is complicated”

Chloe Morin, political scientist associated with the Jean Jaurès Foundation, specialist in public opinion

Is it really a debate? This is the first question we can ask ourselves. Because a debate is not a clash between two separate realities, which will remain so regardless of the discussions. However, most “populists”, even if one should always be careful about the use of this vague term, do not intend to negotiate their vision of the world, rather to fight without making any concessions. To promote their ideas, whatever the circumstances and their opponents, if possible to their detriment.

→ ANALYSIS. Éric Zemmour, danger or ally for the right?

Admittedly, during the electoral campaign, which moreover is presidential, all the candidates pursue this aim and no one gives a gift to his opponent. But they also seek to convince the voters, including a part of those acquired to the one who faces them. While asserting their difference, they seek to unite. A populist candidate places himself in a logic of confrontation between winners and losers, victims and executioners. For example, between the “real France” and those who try to scuttle it.

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This is the dilemma. The populists claim to be representatives of the victims of the “system”. Refusing the debate therefore feeds their story, victimizing them a little more. To face them in fact candidates like the others. There is no right answer to this dilemma, but I still think we have to choose the debate. Since they are already, in fact, at the center of the media game, we have to go into their field and bring them contradiction.

It remains to be seen what weapons to use to do so. Alas, no one seems to have found effective recipes, so complicated it seems to return to a rational debate in front of them. Undoubtedly, moreover, political leaders too shared the illusion that it was enough to align statistics and indisputable facts to win support. It has become difficult to find indisputable facts at a time when public opinion is wary of everything and sometimes places rumors and statistics from INSEE on the same level.

Above all, and science has taught us for a long time, human intelligence is not only rational, it is also largely emotional, such as the way we memorize events. To convince, you have to create emotions in your audience, through a life story, or an identification mechanism. Faced with the populists, the whole point is to provoke “positive” emotions, pride, generosity, dignity, in the face of the anger and resentment that they so often instrumentalize.

Faced with those who brutalize the democratic debate, certain requirements are necessary. It is up to the media to exercise good judgment in the coverage given to a candidate, for example by indexing him to his potential electorate. As for politicians, it is their responsibility to touch on human realities.

► “Defuse the conflict and respond with the facts”

Alexis Greyhound, media historian and author (1)

The initial mistake was to invite Eric Zemmour. The media are fabricating a media creature, not keeping the distance they should give to a man who is not a candidate. The media coverage around the release of his book creates the feeling of an expectation, an urgency, a phenomenon. And as Eric Zemmour is very skillful, he plays to the end of his right to ambiguity by not declaring himself a candidate while seeking signatures or by organizing events that are akin to meetings. It thus exploits all the flaws in the system.

→ ANALYSIS. Media torn between opinion and information

As much, I found problematic that the Superior council of audio-visual (CSA) can decide who was editorialist or politician. As much, I believe in the self-regulation of the press. It is up to her to set ethical rules. And I find that they are not respected. Jean-Luc Mélenchon uses the same populist techniques but he has his place in the media system, because he is a presidential candidate and the head of a political party. By making him debate with Eric Zemmour, we offer the latter a legitimacy that he does not have. We make a show around him, and we thus feed the media beast that we created.

What the press must do in the face of the populist is to bring them back to what they are: not victims but people at the heart of the system, who exploits its weaknesses, starting with those of the media space. Like Trump who was a television star in his time, Zemmour is carried by the media, and especially one of them: the CNews channel of the Canal + group controlled by Vincent Bolloré, which has given him notoriety for two years. in a daily show where he was enthroned in front of a very little pugnacious host and guests who passed him the dishes.

In the BFMTV show, Eric Zemmour will find himself in a much more conflictual space. One of the pitfalls that populists set for the media is to use distrust of them. If you don’t talk about it, you reinforce their victim status. If you talk about it, you give them the central place in the media space they claim and therefore participate in this phenomenon. It is very difficult for journalists to situate themselves in relation to leaders who use this weapon of media delegitimization. Many journalists are distraught.

During the show, Eric Zemmour will try to use conflict with journalists, which is characteristic of populists. Entering into conflict is always going in the right direction. It is to feed their arguments, and their vision of the media. Responding with conflict is to endorse their populist discourse with regard to the press.

Faced with Zemmour who was multi-convicted, and who has a very problematic relationship to facts and history, journalists must be able to recall that he is wrong, and that he is cheating on us. And go back to fact-based journalism, information verification. It’s tricky in real time, but that’s how we can tackle it.


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