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duceppe, layton, ignatieff and harper at a pre-debate photo-op
for the first time in many canadian elections, i did not watch the english language debate last night. a conversion-related duty kept me out of the house. from what i understand, i didn't miss much. despite the tepid reviews, i did decide to tune into this evening's french language debate. if nothing else, it gives me a certain perverse sense of pride knowing that people who are seeking to lead a country more than one quarter francophone speak worse french than i do. besides, there is usually at least one moment of unintentional hilarity as someone realises that they have no idea how to express what they're going to say.

my reaction overall? kind of a mixed bag. at one point fairly early on, it looked like gilles duceppe had harper on the ropes, almost causing that quaalude-like veil of enforced calm to slip. seriously, stephen, everyone knows you have a bad temper and are not patient with people who disagree with you. how much is it going to hurt if you just really let yourself flip out once? although i was having visions of him lunging at one of his opponents screaming "silence! i kill you!", the debate plodded on. even for canadian politics, this one was slow getting started. (and speaking of slow getting started, did you notice that we're half way through the election campaign? are we going to talk about issues, ever? hello?)
 



harper did manage to keep his composure, although i found that despite the structure that in theory allowed each man equal time, he seemed to get sidelined in this debate. it's not that he didn't speak, but that his handlers had him so sedated that he just took the hits from the others and repeated his party line with little vigour or variation. he did get a good line in when the other three leaders' discussion devolved into a mass of clucking and squabbling, addressing himself to canadians and asking them to envision a country lead by a coalition of his rivals. judging his performance in other respects gets tricky. harper's spin doctors will say he looked reserved and statesman-like. his detractors will say that he varied between awkward and catatonic.

i'd personally rate it as a failure on harper's part. i never really expected that he'd turn red and start throwing furniture [although reaction on the web leads me to believe that most viewers would have seen this as an improvement to the retro-67 set] the facts of the election are that if harper wants to form a majority government, he has to make unprecedented gains in other parts of the country, or moderate gains in quebec. by hanging back and letting the others take their shots at him and each other, he won't have convinced any quebeckers to vote for him. his performance was even, but he actually needed to be dominant and persuasive. there were moments i was wondering where he'd gone. i guess his people are really confident that he made those unprecedented gains in the rest of canada after last night's english debate.

being the only francophone on the floor, it was pretty much a given that gilles duceppe was going to outperform everyone. since his regional separatist party has no aspirations to government, it would seem that he had a pretty easy ride, but, for once, that wasn't completely the case. his job tonight was simply to hold the other leaders in check. the bloc quebecois already holds the majority of quebec's seats in parliament and in order to maintain that, he had to make harper look like a villain, michael ignatieff look out of touch and jack layton look ineffectual. that's actually a fair amount of work for someone who's supposed to be able to sit on his laurels until such time as he decides he wants to come back to quebec and take over the leadership of the parti-quebecois.

for the first of his goals, i'll give him a half point. in both the english and french debates of the last decades, duceppe has repeatedly distinguished himself as being the only leader whose debate preparation involved reading up on issues beyond that morning's globe and mail. while i've certainly seen him turn in better performances in both languages, he did have moments where he was able to undercut harper's weighty calm through careful contradiction [and, as i mentioned, he came the closest to rattling his composure]. with the other leaders also intent on attacking harper, duceppe didn't have to work as hard for this one.

goal #2 was making michael ignatieff look out of touch with quebec, like a recently returned ex-pat who'd missed the last few decades of canadian history while sitting in the harvard library. on this, i award him a full point. he was devastating, repeatedly luring ignatieff into traps that made him [ignatieff] look not evil, but slightly deluded, slightly naive. more on that later.

goal #3 was one that duceppe probably wouldn't have thought of until fairly recently. under normal circumstances, duceppe and ndp leader jack layton don't really ever have to debate each other, since the bq runs candidates only in quebec and the ndp can't ever seem to make any headway in quebec. even tonight, both of them acknowledged that their policies [other than that whole separation dealie] are fairly similar. there were even times when it looked like the two of them were enjoying a joint giggle at the expense of the other two. but now, the ndp, having established a small beachhead in quebec, seems poised to make some progress. and that progress is coming at the expense of the bq.

so for the first time, canadians got to see the party leaders with the greatest experience [look it up] go head to head. that section of the debate was the easiest to listen to, since layton's french is very good, and it was also the meatiest portion in terms of discussing actual plans for implementing policies [i'm sure that it was also mind-numbingly boring to people who are committed to either the conservatives or the liberals]. it was also just weird in terms of debate, because, for a while, it seemed like the two men were trying to force an argument where none existed. layton finally acknowledged their similarities, but countered that the ndp, as a federal party, are the only ones who can actually implement those policies. duceppe countered with what everyone must secretly have been thinking "we both know that neither of us is going to be the prime minister, but i'm the only one willing to admit it". zing.

i don't think he dealt layton a death blow, but the implication that "neither of us will win, so you might as well stick with the team who's only there to serve quebec" is one that's likely to resonate now that it's out there. and worse for layton, it's going to be one of the few sound bites that gets circulated. so give duceppe another half point on that one. 2 points out of 3 total, with some efficacy on each of his goals. pretty good showing, really.

layton, despite being on the receiving end of that one-liner from duceppe, was typically pugnacious and happily a little less rigid about repeating the party line than he has been in previous debates. i still find that he hammers a little hard on his talking points, but he was able to express his party's platforms in concrete ways, something with which other ndp leaders have struggled. i personally like the fact that he's a bit scrappy, but i know that what i find scrappy some people find shrill. i will say that i think scrappy sells better in quebec than in other parts of the country, so emphasising that aspect of his character was also a smart move.

he was able to use points from his opponents to illustrate how his policies could be put into practice and he found time to get out the names of two candidates in the gatineau area where the ndp is showing some signs of life. the question with layton is always whether or not people are really listening. the first media commentator i heard when the debate ended commented on all the performances and forgot to mention him. such is life when you're trying to make inroads.


despite the fact that his party holds fewer seats in quebec than any of the other parties, layton consistently remains the second most popular leader in quebec, behind gilles duceppe. i don't expect that that will change based on the debate tonight. as far as whether or not he was able to add some depth to that wide support, it's a little harder to tell.

which brings us to michael ignatieff. from the beginning, things did not look great for him. his french, while not really any worse than harper's, seemed to hobble him terribly and resulted in a cadence that was so slow you wanted to shake him. indeed, i wanted to shake him because as things started off, he was positively soporific, repeating certain words and phrases so often one wondered if he were stuck. then he decided to show his connection to quebec culture by referencing conversations he had had with the widow of filmmaker gilles carle, chloe ste-marie. too bad he called her chloe st-pierre. not what he needed to portray, especially since reactions to him were lukewarm in the english debate.

as things progressed, though, he did start to come alive. in fact, he started to land some serious blows on his opponents, particularly on harper. the one point in the debate where harper seemed to really twist uncomfortably in the wind was in the debate over the government's planned purchase of military helicopters. while harper reassured the audience that the decision to purchase was made with due financial prudence, ignatieff pointed out that the helicopters are in development and that even the american manufacturer couldn't confirm the final costs.

once awoken, ignatieff, while struggling more than the others to communicate his ideas en francais, stayed pretty lively, exactly what his handlers have wanted from him. unfortunately, he retained that energy when it came time for his head-to-head debate with gilles duceppe. his performance was one of those things where you really need to be pretty familiar with the quebec political landscape to realise what made it such a face-palm moment. to begin with, ignatieff undoubtedly drew the short straw getting to be the one to debate duceppe on questions of the constitution in french. that is just never going to be a winning proposition.

but in barreled ignatieff with fools' courage, stressing what to most people seems like a winning argument: that identifying oneself as a quebecker and as a canadian are not mutually exclusive. unfortunately, that argument becomes very problematic in quebec, where french speakers often feel that their principal identity is with quebec and that that identity is threatened by the fact that they live in a country and a continent where they are a minority. however ignatieff just kept going, apparently unaware that he was being beckoned into a minefield.

ignatieff countered duceppe's nationalist rhetoric by indicating that no one he had met with in quebec had even raised the issue of sovereignty or the constitution. his clear implication was that it was duceppe who was out of touch, clinging to political ideas that have long since ceased to matter to people in their daily lives. and he's absolutely right, which is why duceppe doesn't spend a lot of time talking about separatism and has been criticised by some for being soft on nationalism. in fact, during provincial elections, nothing makes smoke fly out my ears faster and harder than someone who votes for a particular party because they cower in fear of the separatist threat. no one is separating. calm the hell down and look at each party's policies on getting sh*t done.

the problem in national politics is that even when you know the constitution is a non-issue and that no one under the age of 50 or over the age of 15 rates separatism as a priority, you can't ever say that. because as soon as you say it, you've made it an issue. as soon as you say that quebeckers don't want to separate, you have a whole bunch of people angry that you've presumed too much. it's a very strange quirk of canadian politics and the fact that michael ignatieff doesn't know enough to steer well clear of saying anything like that unfortunately acts as confirmation for some people's worst fears: he was away too long in his ivory tower. he just doesn't get it.

his next statement was to draw a parallel between his own sense of identity as an ontarian [from toronto, because he wasn't unsympathetic enough already] and a canadian with having a dual identity as a quebecker and a canadian. note to all prospective canadian politicians: never compare a quebecker's sense of belonging to his province with that of someone from any other province in canada. but if for some reason, you absolutely must, if lives depend on it, do not ever use as your example the province of ontario. this isn't something that can be explained, but it sets off the sort of reaction that burning an american flag will in the bible belt.

now, to put things in perspective. michael ignatieff could have gone to the debate in his pyjamas, smoked crack on stage, vomited on the podium and passed out while trying to sing 'gens du pays' and his party would still win a majority of the seats on the island of montreal by the largest margins in the country. but in order to justify his continued presence on the national scene, ignatieff needs to get traction somewhere. he apparently didn't do it in the english debate and his constitutional gaffes ensured he didn't do it in the french debate. while it's unlikely to rob him of any seats he already has, his performance made him look, to use one of those wonderful french terms that never translates perfectly, gauche.

i'm probably making that all sound more dramatic than it was. the bottom line is that two leaders- harper and ignatieff- certainly did themselves no favours but probably no catastrophic harm, while two- duceppe and layton- played to their strengths and potentially won some votes they didn't have going in. ultimately, the evening belonged to duceppe more than the others, which is likely what everyone expected.

as far as the evening's biggest loser, i don't think any of the leaders did as poorly as the debate's organisers. in a national debate with questions posed by voters, there was not one question from a francophone outside quebec [new brunswick, ontario and manitoba all have significant francophone populations]. every face shown asking a question was white, spiting proudly multicultural montreal. and there was not one of the questioners who was younger than me and i'm more than double the minimum voting age. so much for trying to engage younger voters. thanks, media consortium, for promoting the image that french canada is utterly homogenous. well done.

that's it.

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