May 4, 2017
The debate on Wednesday evening between the two presidential candidates was probably the most aggressive ever seen in modern French politics. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen traded blows for more than two hours, often talking over each other. Marine Le Pen used most of her time angrily attacking her opponent, often interrupting the conversation with personal attacks, and used false arguments. As for Emmanuel Macron, he remained calm, worked to appear “presidential” and finally prevailed, according to a viewers’ poll.
The debate was exceptionally confrontational. Right from the beginning, the candidates criticized each other rather than develop their programmes, with Marine Le Pen in particular opening the conversation with a list of ad hominem attacks. She made great use of her usual rhetoric to depict Emmanuel Macron as the representative of the establishment and as responsible for the issues currently facing France. However, Macron was able to turn this back on his opponent, by pointing out the lack of details in her programme.
Marine Le Pen painted her opponent as a globalist, mired in conflicts of interest with the business elite, reminding viewers throughout the debate that Macron had played a significant part in the last government. She struggled on economics, relying heavily on the substantial notes she had at hand, and was often vague and unclear about crucial matters such as opting out of the Eurozone. In contrast, Macron appeared in control when putting forward his economic programme.
According to post-debate polls, Emmanuel Macron appears to have gained the upper hand, with 66% of viewers saying he was the most convincing, against 34% for Marine Le Pen (Elabe BFM TV Survey).
For all its intensity, this debate is unlikely to change anyone’s mind four days before the election. Whether voters chose to abstain or turn out on Sunday, however, will be crucial. According to most polls, supporters of the conservative candidate François Fillon and far-left contender Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who were knocked out in the first round on April 23rd, are considering staying at home in large numbers.
On May 7th, French voters will have to decide between two very different visions of France and its future. The vision promoted by Emmanuel Macron is open, liberal, pro-European, in favour of globalization and free trade agreements such as with Canada. The vision developed by Marine Le Pen, advocating for the return to the Franc, the reestablishment of border controls and protectionism, is based on a view of globalization as a threat to the French way of life, its economy and its security. For all its faults, this debate at least made it clear that French voters face a real choice.
And yet, even after the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, half of the work remains to be done. The parliamentary elections, which will take place in June, will be crucial for the next President, who will need to secure a majority in Parliament in order to implement his or her programme.