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I was just watching a clip of the Mélenchon/Zemmour debate where M. Mélenchon made clear the many reasons why he does not respect or value M. Zemmour, the first of which was

Vous êtes un raciste

Maybe I do not properly understand the T/V distinction here, but why would one not tutoyer when denouncing an opponent as unfit and shameful? Vous seems very respectful for someone you consider a racist and a danger to the Republic....

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  • 2
    Does a UK political candidate talk "street" when disagreeing with their opponent, or do they remain polite and still refer to their opponent as Mr/Ms/Mrs Soandso? I've seen plenty of UK parliament clips to know that it's the latter. Why would the same not apply to other cultures around the world?
    – Flater
    Sep 28 at 15:08
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    @Flater: That is possible, but not at all a uniform policy; It not the best example, as the UK parliament will sanction its members for being "impolite", to the point that a UK MP cannot within the rules claim that another MP is drunk (so the euphemism "tired and emotional" is used), whereas, for example, the Korean parliament is known to occasionally break out into fist fights on occasion (as did the US Congress historically).
    – sharur
    Sep 28 at 21:42
  • @sharur: OP's question is phrased as if the dropping of formal pretense when accusing someone of racism is an obvious logical consequence, and I offered a counterexample tailored to a culture they're likely more familar with (based on the username). My comment is not a matter of "this is what always happens", it's a matter of "this happens as well, so it's not beyond the realm of possibilities".
    – Flater
    Sep 29 at 7:56
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I need to add to the previous answers, which affirm that vous is polite and respectful, and explain why Mélenchon remains polite and respectful.

This is certainly part of the answer. I think that the only times I would expect a political figure to use tu in public would be when addressing their spouse or (their own) children on the dais with them (and maybe not even then), or in a funeral elegy for some person they wish to affirm was their intimate friend.

However it is important to see that even if Mélenchon did not wish to be polite and respectful (and I will not say he wished to), he would still absolutely not use tu, however much it might be considered insulting in some circumstances.

Tu is used between friends. It is intimate. Calling a person tu in public would suggest to people that the speaker knows this person in his private life and considers him a friend. Even if the tone and meaning of the speech is insulting, this would actually be softened by a tu, suggesting a quarrel between friends. Even if using tu were not inappropriate in a political debate, a suggestion of friendship and intimacy is the very last thing Mélenchon wishes in this case.

Vous may signal politeness and respect, granted, and tu can possibly in some cases be insulting, but I see those mostly as a consequence of vous signalling social distance, and tu intimacy. Respect would be upwards social distance, and vous can perfectly well also signal downwards social distance, but in the present case... it's just as much distance as possible.

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    Exactly. In this case, "Vous" implies nous ne sommes pas du même monde. "We have nothing in common" Sep 26 at 6:48
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    In the last debate between the Écologistes primary finalists, Sandrine Rousseau and Yannick Jadot were using tu/toi/ton/tes with each other. There was at least one tu between Martine Aubry and François Hollande in 2011 (Je n'étais pas sur tes genoux quand même). There is also a famous clash about T/V usage between Cohn-Bendit and Mélenchon in 2016 ("Va te faire voir")
    – jlliagre
    Sep 26 at 9:28
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    @jlliagre Thanks, I think you make my point :D To begin with for those three examples you went back eleven years in time. The two first examples are people from the same political party who are supposed to return to being bosom friends and supporters as soon as one of them is chosen to be the main candidate of the party, and in the third example it's a guy famous for being provocative who is using tu toward Mélenchon, who objects to it not because he thinks it's insulting but because "we're not friends".
    – Law29
    Sep 26 at 15:39
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    I was pointing quelques exceptions qui confirment la règle ;-) I don't think Cohn Bendit was provocative at all. He was asking a friendly question (if you run for the primaries, you can win) interrupted by a very aggressive and humiliating remark from Mélenchon, leading to the "va te faire voir". Cohn Bendit was definitely right to use tu. In the past, he and Mélenchon always used it with each other including in public appearances. Mélenchon ridiculed himself, and that's not the only time.
    – jlliagre
    Sep 26 at 16:03
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    Compare the English constructs "You're a racist!" and "You, Sir, are a racist!" -- the latter comes across as a much more vehement denunciation.
    – Shadur
    Sep 27 at 9:47
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There are already several posts on FL on when to use tu or vous. I'm thinking of this one in particular How do you decide whether to use "vous" or "tu"? / Comment choisir entre « vous » et « tu » ? that might be a start, but your question raises yet a different issue.

There are several reasons why none of the opponents would use tu. I won't probably list them all.

  • Using tu or vous has nothing to do with the respect you show for someone's ideas and you don't necessarily say tu to your (political) enemies.

  • In a public debate you would usually say vous to your opponents even if tu was used in private life.

  • The use of tu in the situation you describe would be very offensive. M. does not value Z.'s ideas but in a public debate he has to remain polite in the way he addresses his opponent. Once they leave the stage for all we know he might very well say tu to him (or even insult him at the risk of being sued).

Another problem in the way you perceive the use of tu or vous is that the use of tu or vous is expected to be reciprocal except when talking to young children. It is usually admitted that adults can say tu to young children in situations when these children are expected to use vous in return. So if M. had said tu, then Z. would have used tu as well.

I'd like to point to what used to be a long standing debate in France, not as a direct answer to your question but related to the topic of respect and the use of tu or vous.
Some members of the police force used to say tu to (some) people when checking id or during interrogations, quite a lot of people disagreed with that. Here are some articles to give you food for thought.

Politesse. La police à tu et à toi avec les jeunes de banlieue. (Courrier international 26/03/2008)

Débat : pour ou contre les policiers qui disent « tu » (Le Parisien 12/04/2013)

Les syndicats de police divisés sur la fin du tutoiement (Le Figaro 26/06/2012)

Le tutoiement, par maître Lienard (2021/03/11, un avocat sur un site relatif à l’actualité des forces de l’ordre et de la sécurité.)

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On the basis of traditional French culture there is no reason to stop being civil to people whose opinions differ, or diverge from a norm, even grossly; on the contrary there are reasons not to do so. Strict adherence to the norms of civility is typical in the courts of law in France (and the world over), where the judges, and all other professionals of the law, will always address the worst of criminals as Monsieur or Madame and maintain the second person plural when speaking to them, never ignoring the norms of civility according to which anyone is entitled to be treated. In fact, the principle of denigrating someone a treatment according to the norms of basic politeness is contrary to the idea of the law: the would be punishment inflicted by not keeping to usual politeness is unsystematic, arbitrary, it results in humiliation that borders on insult, and anyone is answerable to the law for the insults they address to anyone. It shows as well on the part of the person that stops being polite in such circumstances a lack of self-respect, but that is a contention difficult to support. It is clear that these norms of respect, and self-respect, are not what the hussle and bustle of daily life teaches us, but neither is the life of the street fighter a model a behaviour proper to serve as example of what civilized life should be.

In the case of the Mélanchon-Zemmour debate, it would have been a serious mistake for Mélanchon to start using the second person singular, the sole reason for justifying such a possibility being that his sudden accusation appears to be grievous; this sort of behaviour is simply not compatible with the traditional ethics of French politics or of French public life; nowadays, however, it can occasionally be found in public life.

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  • standard of politeness. Norms is not much used here by English speakers to refer to politeness etiquette in France.
    – Lambie
    Sep 25 at 16:23
  • @Lambie You mean that "norm of politeness" is not idiomatic? Apparently, this is not so, it seems to be fully idiomatic: books.google.com/ngrams/… (ex.: Moreover, norms of politeness may include norms of display and norms of concealment, where one can be polite either by saying/doing something or by …)
    – LPH
    Sep 25 at 16:28
  • No, it did not say it is not idiomatic. I said it is not much used in explanations about French politeness. Your entire paragraph contains oddities. Maybe one day I will edit some answer of yours to show you to what extent your writing is "off". Many terms are not quite on the mark, many sentences are oddly phrased. One example: we don't say courts of justice. We say: courts or a court of law. Just about everywhere you say norms, we would say standards. "the sole reason for doing it being that his sudden accusation appears to be grievous": He didn't do it, did he?
    – Lambie
    Sep 25 at 16:39
  • "appears to be grievous" is very odd. Is it English, is it idiomatic. Yes. Sure. It is actually part of a legal term: Grievous bodily harm. Would it be used as you have used it here? No. None of these remarks are provable by Ngrams. I suggest you have another high-level, native English speaker read some of my remarks and read this answer as it stands and they will tell you.
    – Lambie
    Sep 25 at 16:41
  • @Lambie 1/ I agree with you on account of "court of law" being the usual term, but "court of justice" is also used and there is no reason why I shouldn't use it: google.com/… 2/ the first synonym for norm "standard": google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=synonym+of+norm 3/ There is valid criticism in that 3rd remark of yours, I believe. (1/2)
    – LPH
    Sep 25 at 16:59
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Coming from a different culture that makes vous/tu distinction, I would suggest the following:

  • Using tu towards a person whom one should normally vouvoyer is a kind of insult - you thus treat him as a child or as somebody who is not deserving respect - I think it is in this sense that the OP suggests using tu towards racists.
  • On the other hand, using vous may underscore the distance between the two people, like refusing to shake somebody's hand, or to be in the same room with them, or to otherwise have anything in common with them - I see how this can be used vis-à-vis a racist as well.

What attitude to adopt depends on the context and the personality. Dignified vous rather than putting yourself on the same level is probably more appropriate in a televised context.

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