In France it has become common place to see the numerous would-be presidents arguing aggressively with one another, whether it be on TV or in print. Both the Republican and Socialist parties have continued to pump out passionate party broadcasts on television with the result begin an equally vocal and passionate electorate and a growing air of passion across the country.
Finally though the presidential campaign has begun in earnest ahead of the first round on April 23rd, and what better way to begin than a televised debate to showcase the various candidates and pit their policies against one another? Although of course only two candidates really matter now. Opinion polls are indicating a Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, victory in the first round but an overall victory for centrist Emmanuel Macron in the subsequent run off. Yet Mr Macron’s support is not exactly robust, while Le Pen enjoys steadfast support from her backers those who say they prefer the former economy minister are not entirely sure of their choice. If he stumbles in a debate, or sets out policies deemed to left or too right leaning he’ll lose some of that tenuous support, which would be devastating for his chance at the presidency.
So when the five main candidates for the presidency met for a marathon debate on March 20th, and at three hours long marathon is the only word to use, the stakes were highest for Mr Macron. The former minister has no experience of such a debate, he has never won an election, and he is not backed up by a strong manifesto, just vague policy ideas lacking substance or merit. Not to mention the fact that as theoretical front-runner he would be the target of all five opponents.
Given his lack of experience though Macron defended himself well enough, despite his occasional moments of pointless prattle. He may have started off a little nervously but he visibly gained confidence as the three hours dragged by, eventually managing to charm the stiff studio audience into laughing along with him as the other candidates constantly attacked his policies.
He wasn’t the only one to be happy with their performance though, Ms Le Pen also put in a memorable show. She managed to prove herself as a consistent and forceful candidate, and most importantly as an effective speaker. She praised Britain’s “great” decision to quite the European Union, a move she would like to mirror, she also echoed President Donald Trump when she called for a national economy protected from “wild globalisation.” She also reiterated her desire to secure French borders and put an almost complete halt to immigration.
When faced with the same topic Mr Macron said the solution to immigration lay in an increased focus on EU co-operation and integration. Of course that was met by scornful laughter from Ms Le Pen.
Yet Ms Le Pen did tone down her rhetoric somewhat in an attempt to win over more moderate viewers. She said she would “respect” voters and allow them to decide through a referendum about what France’s relationship would be to the EU. She seems to be trying to broaden her appeal by softening her most extreme views in an attempt to put herself ahead of the Mr Macron.
The other three candidates had little to gain from the debate. François Fillon, the Republican candidate who once looked to be the obvious winner, has spent two months dodging corruption allegations over payments of official salaries to members of his own family. His poll numbers have continued to drop below the 20% mark suggesting that unless Mr Macron suffers a big blunder there’s little he can do to get back into the race. As expected Mr Fillon’s performance during the debate was subdued, he was strong when it came to discussing the economy but on foreign affairs he made an embarrassing mistake. He was for some reason and apologist for Russia’s Vladimir Putin when he likened the illegal annexation of Crimea to the Western intervention in Kosovo.
The other two candidates are even further behind in the polls than Fillon. The socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, has a clean-cut image and an aggressive debating style that played very well to the cameras. He raised a few important issues that the other candidates simply ignored, such as the country’s need to increase its renewable energy sources and the need to reform the prison system. He also brought out his populist policy of creating a state-provided basic income in order to cope with what he calls the “digital disruption” of the economy; this was the policy that helped him secure the socialist position in the first place.
Mr Hamon’s performance would have been more impressive, and possibly secured him a place in the second round of voting if it wasn’t for the other candidate standing opposite him. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is an amiable old-fashioned socialist who’s offering little more to the contest than sucking away voters on Mr Hamon’s left.
In the end the marathon debate should leave supporters of Mr Macron at east. This was his first bi televised test and he managed to grow in confidence and appeal, at least enough so to deny Mr Fillon the chance to re-establish his lead.
The debate can also be seen as the prologue to the increasingly likely second round matchup between the globalisation promoting, EU loving, socially liberal Mr Macron and the nationalist, anti-immigrant Ms Le Pen. An interesting election campaign has just begun.