The Macron vs Le Pen debate was a bout without a winner

With both presidential candidates hardening their positions, France remains divided and unsure before voting day

The debate between French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in Paris on Wednesday night. Reuters

A great debate it was not. Eagerly awaited and widely billed as potentially decisive in France's presidential duel, the televised marathon pitching President Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen served chiefly to reinforce firmly entrenched impressions.

In each opposing camp, supporters of the incumbent and his challenger were predictably quick to claim victory after two-and-a-half hours of intense exchanges.

But although one early opinion poll indicated that 59 per cent of viewers found Mr Macron more convincing, compared with just 39 per cent for Ms Le Pen, there was neither an obvious knockout punch nor a clear victory on points.

For some political analysts scrutinising every word of the debate, the lingering reflection was of two adversaries whose performances had conformed to preconceptions. Mr Macron was still the man many in France have come to despise as a "president for the rich"; Ms Le Pen remains the far-right demagogue for whom victory on Sunday would be an affront to political decency.

When the same candidates reached the second round decider in 2017 and took part in a similar debate, Mr Macron was the emphatic winner, his opponent seeming ill-prepared, weak on detail and at times incoherent. On Wednesday night, she was in markedly better form, irritated but unruffled as Mr Macron launched fierce attacks on a range of issues from French membership of the EU and her ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin to Islamism and the environment.

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Le Pen was in markedly better form than in 2017, irritated but unruffled as Macron launched fierce attacks

Mr Macron, by contrast, showed occasional agitation, accusing Ms Le Pen of risking civil war with plans to outlaw the wearing of the veil in all public places, pursuing nationalist policies that would drag France out of the EU and offering no compelling evidence of being able to fund lavish spending and tax concessions intended to ease the cost-of-living crisis. "Your programme has neither head nor tail [essentially that it makes no sense]," he exclaimed at one point.

As the confrontation began, new soundings put Mr Macron on 56.5 per cent of voting intentions. This would be 10 per cent down on his comfortable 2017 triumph but, even allowing for a margin of error, the likeliest outcome is that he will win a second term at the Elysee Palace.

It is hard, all the same, to dismiss the portrayal by Marianne, a left-leaning magazine named after a revered national symbol, of France as an unhappy and fractured nation.

In its analysis of the first round vote on April 10, when Mr Macron finished in first position but only four and six points ahead of Ms Le Pen and the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon respectively, Marianne described France as an "ungovernable country" of three irreconcilable blocs.

In fact, to Mr Macron's centrism and the extremes of his closest rivals must be added a fourth bloc: the undecided or reluctant. More than a quarter of the electorate boycotted the first round and a poll before the television debate indicated that 13 per cent of voters were still undecided.

Sunday's runoff could be settled by the redistribution of the 7.7 million votes cast for Mr Melenchon. He made plain his own aversion to Ms Le Pen but issued no appeal to supporters to switch allegiance to the President. In fact, some – attracted by promises to "put money back in the pockets of the French" – may well opt for her. And the biggest proportion, estimated at 37 per cent, is expected to abstain. "It's like choosing between the plague and cholera,” said one disgruntled Melenchon voter interviewed on French television.

Ten years or more into an almost obsessive campaign to cleanse her public reputation, shaking off the toxic legacy of her father and former mentor, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms Le Pen considers herself ready to serve as France's first female president. She is confident the French no longer see her as a "big bad wolf", more a prudent, focused mother-of-three fit to be trusted with social and economic policy and liable to be tougher on crime and border controls.

Yet, she still relies on electors on the extreme right for core support. She may have devoted far less attention in her campaign to attacking immigration and Islamism than her central policies on the cost of living, but on neither issue has her basic approach mellowed.

She renewed her pledges in the debate to give French citizens clear priority on employment, social housing and state benefits, close "radical" mosques and hold a referendum on sweeping changes to rules on migrants, expelling those who enter illegally or commit crimes when in France. Without rigid consistency on such crucial elements of her project, she could not expect the support of the 2.4 million people who voted in the first round for Eric Zemmour, a polemicist even further to the populist right.

When Ms Le Pen's father was swept aside by the centre-right Jacques Chirac in the 2002 presidential election, winning just 18 per cent of the vote, the French might have been forgiven for thinking the spectre of a far-right head of state had been safely exorcised.

If so, they were wrong – and not only because of his daughter's resilient progress, boosting her share of the poll from 6.4 million in 2012 to 10.6 million in 2017, with the certainty of many more on Sunday.

Now 53, more than eight years Mr Macron's senior, Ms Le Pen says that "in principle" she will not stand again for the presidency if defeated.

But waiting in the wings is another member of the family, her niece Marion Marechal. Just 32, charismatic and somewhat closer in outlook to her grandfather and Mr Zemmour than to her aunt, she is tipped by many as a logical presidential contender next time around. If Mr Macron once again overcomes the threat of Marine Le Pen on Sunday, keeping the far right out of France's highest office next time round could become a lot tougher.

Published: April 21, 2022, 6:23 AM