Canada: Daniel Goldbloom on the French-language leaders' debate: Dion The Leader and 'Harperphonics'

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Oct 3 16:07:50 UTC 2008

Daniel Goldbloom on the French-language leaders' debate: Dion The
Leader and 'Harperphonics'
Posted: October 02, 2008, 2:58 PM by Dan Goldbloom
Daniel Goldbloom

Is it just me, or does everything sound better in French? At last
night's French-language leaders' debate, Stéphane Dion sounded
competent and passionate; Elizabeth May spoke slowly enough for
viewers to understand her; Jack Layton was smoother than le derrière
du bébé, Gilles Duceppe reminded us why he's the longest-serving party
leader on the hill; and Stephen Harper, well, he's really good at
pronouncing "désinformation." Sitting the leaders around a table
instead of at their podiums made for less yelling (apparently that's
the new definition of "collegial") and moderator Stéphane Bureau did
an excellent job of turning the gathering into something approximating
a conversation. But the most striking performance belonged to Stéphane
Dion. Meeting opponents in his linguistic comfort-zone, Dion looked
like a credible leader — an achievement in itself, given his
performance to date. The aloof, professorial caricature painted by the
Tories in English, seemed to disappear in French.

Dion wisely focussed his attacks on Harper, instead of his old
separatist foe, Duceppe. I was struck by how at ease the two men were
sitting side by side at the debate table. (At this point I'd like to
thanks Jack Layton for not bringing the debate furniture into his
boardroom table/kitchen table analogy. I think we've all heard enough
about the needs of "Main Street" to keep us off metaphorical spatial
designations for disparate electoral constituencies.) But as good as
Dion was, it really doesn't matter. Most francophone voters are
debating between the Conservatives and the Bloc, and no matter how
good a show Dion puts on now, the Liberals are toast in Quebec. It's
too late to scrape off the cretons.

Stephen Harper performed well linguistically, if not politically. For
a Westerner, his comfort and proficiency in French have always
impressed me. Instead of looking foolish in trying to pronounce the
throaty French 'R' — of which I assume he is incapable — Harper plows
ahead with its more Spanish-sounding rolled counterpart. He's
certainly not going to pronounce his consonants the way those whiny
artists do at their rich galas. To paraphrase a Liberal campaign
slogan, this is Harperphonics.  But although Harper said his words
beautifully, he didn't choose the right ones. As much as his policy of
Open Federalism has given more symbolic standing to Quebec, the fact
remains that his national policies and actions — specifically his
crime package and cuts to arts funding — have spooked francophone
voters back into the arms of the Bloc. If Harper wants a majority —
something he avoided claiming until halfway through the campaign — he
needs to make peace with Francophones on these issues. If he couldn't
do it in the French-language debate, I don't see how he can do it

Balancing the interests of Quebec and the rest of Canada has been part
of the prime-ministerial gig since 1867. Just when everyone thought
Harper had the hang of it (thanks to the Québécois nation resolution),
he hit a snag. He now seems to have single-handedly restored the
Bloc's will to live. Tonight, our leaders will speak to a different
audience, in a different language. Again, Stéphane Dion will be the
one to watch. Perhaps his performance last night will boost his
confidence. Then again, that performance may hurt him tonight, in the
form of raised viewer expectations.  In any case, Elizabeth May's
machine-gun diction will prove wonderfully engaging; Jack Layton
smooth indignation will charm; Gilles Duceppe's English-devil-may-care
attitude will amuse; and Harper, well, we'll see if he can run this
four-on-one mash-up the way he's dominated Parliament.

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