It has been a week since the historic debate between the five leading candidates in the Presidential race. Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon debated with each other in a spirited clash over three and a half hours of primetime television. Almost 11 million people at one point tuned in (an incredible 25% of the electorate).
One week later, the debate’s effects can be seen in the polls. I resisted the urge to write a post straight after the debate, as the US election shows us that a rapid-fire assessment of the debate performance of a candidate is not a reliable guide to how they will fare in voters’ eyes. One week later, two candidates are clear winners from the first debate. It was clear on the night that Jean-Luc Melenchon did well, but more surprisingly voters have smiled on Emmanuel Macron’s shakier performance.With his off the cuff style, his deadpan humour and his punchy delivery, Jean-Luc Melenchon is usually entertaining to watch. Last Monday was no exception. Tackling Marine Le Pen frequently, distancing himself from the financial scandals that dog Le Pen and Fillon, and joking that Hamon and Macron should be left to debate each other as the Socialist Party could do with an internal debate, he enlivened the debate. Always stronger when decrying the policies of others, Melenchon stumbles when he puts forward his own policies, apart from a handful which seem to have stuck with him (mainly because they involve abolishing various reforms). But for voters looking for a channel for their opposition to, well, pretty much everything, he fits the bill perfectly. His temper, which has counted against him in past campaigns, seems under control, save for bouts of what the French call “clean anger” which expresses outrage at various ills (a feeling shared by many a voter).
I was less impressed by Emmanuel Macron. He was carefully scrutinised by political experts, looking for weakness, but also because he hadn’t spent the last couple of months debating in primary elections like Hamon and Fillon had. Macron’s strategy was clearly to start attacking Marine Le Pen, essentially recognising that all current polling puts him into the second round against her. Aside from a rather stagey rebuttle to Le Pen that he didn’t need a ventriloquist, and a more effective attack on Le Pen’s accusation that he was perfectly happy about the spate of burkini-wearing on French beaches over the Summer, the rest of his performance was uneven. He fluffed his opening and closing statements (he was visibly nervous in both), his habit of agreeing with other candidates started to look a little like laziness that consensus building, and his foreign policy was meaningless waffle – Le Pen pointing that out was her most effective moment of the whole debate.
Voters however seem to have smiled on his habit of agreeing with his opponents, seeing a different approach to the rabid partisanship of the other candidates. This is a little unfair – there were plenty of moments where a broad consensus amongst the candidates was teased out of the debate. But Macron has benefited from this, extending his leading slightly over Le Pen (albeit still within the margin of error).
The other candidates largely squandered their moment. Fillon did and said almost nothing for the first hour, apparently petrified that he would be tackled for the accusations of embezzling public money that continue to dog his campaign. Whilst he livened up later, he still cannot change the subject from his wife and children’s publicly-financed jobs. Hamon tried to argue chiefly with Macron but got entangled in debates with Melenchon (who out debated him easily) and appeared flat and tired. His triumph the day before at the Accorhotels Arena was effectively scrubbed. He has since sunk in the polls behind Melenchon.
Le Pen took an odd approach. She didn’t seem prepared for the detailed nature of the debate at times, and adopted a skeptical, cynical expression every time she was challenged, which simply came off as looking confused. Voters who have already plumped for her seem unlikely to change their view (they were probably not watching anyway) but she didn’t win any new support; she may have concluded that she doesn’t need to, before the second round at least.
This was probably the most important debate before the second round – two others are planned over the coming weeks but they will include six more candidates who have qualified for the ballot. A debate amongst eleven is impossible, will be punctuated by the smaller candidates who will probably steal the limelight simply due to the novelty aspect, and will probably be just a series of short speeches by each candidate. Whilst the debate didn’t include any knock-out punches (they almost never do) it did perhaps harden voters’ views of certain candidates. With less than a month to go, Melenchon is on the rise, but otherwise the polls seem stubbornly convinced that Macron and Le Pen will face off in the second round.