There is little evidence in previous French Presidential elections of the single debate between the two finalists having much effect on the result. The debate in 2012 between François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to confirm the result several days later – Sarkozy seemed already to have accepted that his defeat was inevitable. In 2007, Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal never seemed to be a fair match, as Sarkozy rode high in the polls and in steering around Royal’s scattergun approach to the issues.
Wednesday night’s debate was very different. Whilst in 2012 the debate was often dull and plodding, this debate offered some shocking moments. It was sometimes difficult to hear the candidates over their shouting at each other. The two moderators were largely ignored (and looked thoroughly miserable throughout. This was not a great debate on the issues that we might have hoped for. But, if the final polls released today are to be believed, it might have changed quite a few minds.Could Marine Le Pen’s angry bombast, jaw-dropping lies, snide insinuations and sarcastic laughter have been predicted? It was certainly feared, although many thought that she would instead try and convey the calming and competent image that she employed at the beginning of her campaign. We were far from La France appaisée – her first campaign slogan. Instead, she could have been the warm up act at a Trump campaign rally, slinging insults at Emmanuel Macron every opportunity she had. Even during her carte blanche (5 minutes for each candidate to address a topic of her choice) and her final conclusion, she simply continued to attack Macron.
Unfortunately for her, this is difficult to maintain over two and a half hours, and she ran short of ammunition rather quickly, turning to the same accusations, off colour jokes about Macron’s marriage, a false statement about Macron supposedly having an off-shore bank account (for which he is suing for defamation and illegal interference in an election campaign) and already worn out slogans that Macron is “face down” in front of Angela Merkel, the banks and international finance, and that his vision of France is one where “everything is for sale”. At times she was indistinguishable from the caricature of her performed by popular comedians Laurent Gerra or Nicolas Canteloup.
Her mastery of the detail was woeful. Even on issues that she raised unprompted herself she had little substantive to say. She shifted uneasily from point to point when she ran out of soundbites (often after the second sentence) and shuffled her piles of colour-coded notes. Macron had some fun with this, as did the Internet. Her single strong moment was when she tackled Macron for his supposedly close ties to a conservative Islamic movement who support Macron and he failed to offer a robust response.
Macron was clearly shocked at the start of the debate by Le Pen’s approach, probably expecting her to warm up to her most heated barbs. He began by fighting back on every point. Some pundits have criticised him for this – I think this was however a necessary survival technique. Had he let the invective wash over him, he would have looked weak. Not responding to the blatant lies from Le Pen risked giving them credence. I have always thought that Hillary Clinton’s reliance on fact-checking websites to set the record straight on President Trump’s lies in their debates was a critical error. Once Macron realised that Le Pen didn’t actually have much of a range beyond her initial attacks, he stopped responding to everything, and instead pointed out repeatedly that Le Pen had nothing to offer in terms of proposals – merely criticism of him and the status quo. This seemed to irritate and fluster Le Pen and allowed Macron to rise above her repetitive blather.
Whilst playing the Trump card (an irresistible pun in the circumstances) might have worked for President Trump (who, despite similarly woeful debate performances, was judged as having done pretty well in the debates by the viewing public) the French, it is thought, would be looking for a very different style in their head of state. The French do not, it was thought, aspire to have a beer with their President. Le Pen, it seemed, was playing to her base, and only her base. At no stage did she seem to try and reach out to those voters who are worried about the consequences of her economic policy (she babbled badly about how to deal with the Euro, clearing having adopted Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s policy of a dual currency system without understanding how it would actually work). Her attempt to harness those Mélenchon voters who are looking for a reason to avoid voting for the “banker” Macron, fell flat.
Immediate feedback by polling agencies seems to confirm that the French were expecting more from Le Pen than bombast. The polls showed that two thirds of viewers found Macron more convincing. Viewing figures were however down on the previous two debates, at 16 million people (although many more will have heard the key excerpts of the debate and read the coverage which has been unanimous in declaring Macron the winner). Much media time has been spent puzzling over Le Pen’s strategy. Reports abound of the disappointment within her own base at her performance, and even some criticism from the Fascist-in-chief himself, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Today’s polls show Macron extending his lead to over 60%. The gain of 3-4% seems to be coming from Mélenchon and Fillon voters deciding not to stay home or spoil their ballots. With Macron taking the afternoon off from campaigning, and Saturday being the traditional day when campaigning is banned, little will happen now to change the results.
The big remaining question is what turnout and spoiled or other ballots will look like on Sunday. In the first round turnout was 78% – high by international standards but pretty standard for a French Presidential election. Spoiled ballots were less than 1% and “blank” ballots were 1.4%. The French vote by placing a piece of paper with the name of their chosen candidate in an envelope and then putting the envelope in the ballot box – you can vote “blank” by either putting a blank piece of paper in the envelope (people really prepare for this!), or leaving the envelope empty. This has been the adopted method of those who are trying to express a “none of the above candidates” vote. It is not however used to determine the result. Blank and spoiled ballots on Sunday are likely to be much higher (although they are not usually as high as is often feared in second rounds where the National Front is present). Turnout is likely to be down. If turnout reaches 75%, that would be a good result for Macron. If blank and spoiled ballots are under 10% that would be a good result for Macron. Both would suggest a win with a margin of 20 points – enough to be the start of a convincing mandate. If those figures are respectively lower and higher, Macron’s victory is unlikely to be in jeopardy, but it would undoubtedly weaken him as the newly elected President.
Had Le Pen played it safe in Wednesday’s debate and presented some of her key ideas, Macron would have had a problem. Had she calmly and methodically presented the case against globalisation, Macron would have had a problem. The French were willing to listen to her. They are uneasy and worried. Their natural instinct is to distrust the global elite and look to simpler solutions. Macron offers no simple solutions and does not pretend otherwise; yet Le Pen, rather than harness this historic opportunity talked at the people and not to the people. Once again, we escape the worst she can offer in spite of her, rather than thanks to the opposition to her. And now all we have to do is vote.