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Yesterday's french debate between the candidates to replace Andrew Scheer was probably not the bang Tories were hoping for.  The Conservative leadership race was suppose to come back on the radar screen with a vengeance, after having been relegated almost to oblivion for the past three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The debates were originally scheduled for April.

So there was some level of anticipation before Wednesday's first of two debates amongst the four contenders.  It was going to be the re-launch of the campaign.  It didn't start so well though: the Conservatives couldn't get the debate started on time, forcing talking heads to fill the air an extra 30 minutes during the prolonged pre-game shows.  That said, the quality of the French was certainly much better than what would ensue.

Because, more than the substances and the platforms, this first debate was indeed first and foremost a chance to evaluate the quality of the French of each candidate.  After all, 62% of Canadians believe that the next Conservative leader should be bilingual.  That level rises to 69% in the case of the Prime Minister, according to a Léger poll.

The Conservative party tried to help the candidates to pass the test.  According to information obtained by La Presse, the questions were provided in advance to the candidates to help them formulate their answers and to avoid them the embarrassment of long silences in front of the cameras (this is denied by a Conservative spokesperson of course).  I suppose it helped, somewhat.

The spectacle on display probably didn't reassure everyone.  At times, it was difficult to follow the discussion.  Debate tactics, such as attacking or responding to another topic, left the impression that the questions had not been understood.  This tactic was a mistake.  The cacophony, especially when Erin O'Toole was trying to destabilize Peter MacKay, did not serve anyone.  To be fair, MacKay's game plan was clearly to keep the puck as long as he could, leaving O'Toole trying to interrupt him systematically.

Leslyn Lewis was clearly the most disadvantaged by her lack of a grasp of the language.  Her French is simply not to caliber.  In this context, she choose to systematically read her answers and her questions.  It was, let's say, an interesting tactic, one that can leave some to wonder how much worse it would have been if she hadn't read everything.

Derek Sloan's French is mediocre, to be sure.  He has made significant progress, however.  Although he was not as active a participant as the two main contenders, he did venture away from his notes and had prepared lines and comebacks.  Sloan seemed to have taken the exercise seriously and prepared himself well enough to survive the ordeal.

Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay were much better.  O'Toole's accent is softer than MacKay's, but MacKay gained confidence and ease as the debate progressed.  The two's French appeared to be ahead of Andrew Scheer's, at the same point in the previous leadership campaign.

Erin O'Toole went as far as to boast on Twitter that he was "ready to win the french debates".

No.  Not really.  O'Toole couldn't even win the Conservatives' French debate.  Peter MacKay had a simpler message, a better strategy and a slightly better grasp of the French language.

Nevertheless, when election time comes around, it was clear last night that neither Peter MacKay nor Erin O'Toole would look particularly good debating in French against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet.  Jagmeet Singh's french has also improved and is ahead of the Tory candidates.

The first debate of the last campaign, hosted by french TV network TVA, was a turning point for Andrew Scheer, and not in a good way.  Scheer was not ready for French Prime Time.  His lacklustre performance stopped his momentum and killed his hope of growing the Conservative beach head in Quebec.  His quest to become Prime Minister and his subsequent ousting from the Conservative leadership began that night.  The next Conservative leader better keep this in mind, whomever it may be.

Photo Credit: National Post

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