Manuels Valls on ONPC: the dangerous alliance between politics and entertainment
(All of the following references are French famous TV shows, from the 80’s to 2016)
The First Secretary of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, singing “Les feuilles Mortes” at Patrick Sebastien’s TV show, the Minister of Culture Jack Lang, invited at “Tournez Manège”, Thierry Ardisson who asked the former Prime minister Michel Rocard if “getting a blowjob is cheating”, the former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at “Le Grand Journal”, or even the former UMP President, Jean-François Copé, lying on Marc-Olivier Fogiel analyst’s couch a couple of days ago…
Both right and left wing politicians did not wait for Manuel Valls to attend popular TV shows rather than more conventional political ones. But he was the first government’s head to agree to appear on “On est pas couché” (France2), a late night show combining entertainment and political debate, animated by Laurent Ruquier every Saturday, and broadcasted on January 16th. Before this intervention, Manuel Valls also appeared on “Le Petit Journal” (Canal+) on 24 November, a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. This appearance was meant to reach new audiences for an innovation since no Prime minister had ever participated in this popular TV-show aiming at the 15-25 years old.
For Manuel Valls, PR is not only permanent: it must reach out all the targets. Given the fact that the media offering is now expanding and diversifying, talking to everyone means talking everywhere. Does it ring a bell? Indeed it may remind you of Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2007 presidential elections campaign. The days when its spin doctor Jacques Pilhan used to tell François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac to dilute their presidential statements are long gone.
By appearing on ONPC, the Prime Minister made the choice to avoid “classic” TV-shows that put politicians face to face, preferring an “infotainment” one with a larger audience. On Laurent Ruquier’s set, both the culture and the political communities were represented (a member of the French Academy, Jean d’Ormesson; a movie actor, Gérard Darmon, a writer, Patrick Rambaud, a film director Eva Husson and an humorist, Jeremy Ferrari). Public curiosity has arised as soon as Mr. Valls presence in the show was announced in the media. And the gamble paid off in audience. France 2 broke its record of both audience (2.1 million viewers) and audience shares (29.1%) since last year. On social networks too, the show managed to generate a lot of reactions: 50 315 tweets during airtime, and the hashtag #ONPC recorded one of its best engagement scores.
On the heart of the matter, Manuel Valls intervention allowed him to show that he was able to remain calm when he wanted to. Regular clashes, personal attacks, and other massive arguments occured during previous ONPC shows, such as an early departure of Jacques Attali a few years ago. The guest’s challenge is to reply to a multitude of aggressive questions without losing control. Some will remember the famous Nadine Morano “white race” line, or the more personal and remarked, “it pisses me off to talk to someone as dumb as you are” shouted by writer Caroline Fourest to editorialist Aymeric Caron in May. Even though he was attacked by Jean d’Ormesson and heckled by Jeremy Ferrari, The Prime Minister remained calm and smiling throughout the show.
…and less obvious risks
We understood that for Manuel Valls, the context is as important as the substance. This bet can be dangerous as it’s clear that the risk of mistake is high when one expose itself in these kind of media. Forced to be spontaneous by Jeremy Ferrari when he asked if “Ali Bongo was not democratically elected?” Manuel Valls argued “No … not like it is generally accepted”. Consequently, the day after broadcasting, Gabonese authorities recalled their ambassador in France. By letting himself talk about international politics in a show devoted to entertainment, the Prime minister has committed a diplomatic faux pas that he may have avoided, especially in a tense international context. Stéphane Le Foll himself, who was invited in ONPC a few months ago, did not learned and grew from this experience on the unemployment issue.
On the heart of the matter, again. The multiplication of the Prime Minister’s speeches inevitably entails a risk of dilution of its messages and certainly contributes to make the political discourse meaningless. By multiplying a speech fragmented into several targets, the effectiveness of the messages certainly begins to erode. Since the beginning of September, Manuel Valls has already participated to 25 radio or TV shows. However, this media omnipresence has not meant increasing popularity polls.
On the heart of the matter, still Manuel Valls is aware that the media space will soon be trusted by François Hollande in view of the forthcoming presidential elections. He does not want to be “fillonized” (i.e., undermined; an expression referring to François Fillon, Prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency). But this is not just a question of differentiating himself from the President. In fact, the PM fear that his reformist profile is overshadowed by Emmanuel Macron success in the media as well as in the polls, built through his innovative approach to politics.
On the heart of the matter, at last. By accepting to discuss with artists, writers and humorists, the Prime Minister obviously gives an image of closeness and openness but it also contributes to the popular discrediting of its function, and does not contribute to restore the primacy of politics.
Although it has existed for many years, this type of exercises remains new and not mastered in France. They are still far away from Barack Obama jokes at Jerry Seinfeld show… Pretending to be modern and playing the “infotainment” game can have its limits that politicians, especially when they are in power, should take into account.