The second-round French TV presidential debate, the one and only, was quite the battle. Two and a half hours of the two finalists on stage, sitting directly across from one another, two moderators. Cage-match-to-the-death format. American presidential debates are more formal: the candidates separated by more space, more moderators, more journalist questions. They are more like parallel press conferences than debates, and have nothing like last evening’s intensity.
I think Le Pen won on grand themes, Macron on economic specifics, and the result won’t be enough for Le Pen close the gap with Macron. Right afterwards French television weighed in with the establishment consensus that Macron had won and produced a poll confirming this decision. I really doubt the poll, but it surely has a self-justifying impact. Remarkably, no analyst—in a debate in which both candidates showed their strength—was willing to declare Le Pen the winner. It’s difficult for me to judge; I thought Le Pen didn’t have the knockout she needed but scored salient and eloquent points about France’s direction and implicated Macron in it. She was weaker on the specifics of her own program, and Macron was able to point that out. I would have scored it even; my wife (whose French is a good deal better than mine) thought Le Pen the clear winner.
Macron is a technocrat, and when the debate touched on specific measures about the unemployment rate, various tax and regulation adjustments for businesses of various sizes, etc., he was on his best terrain. When the debate got to terrorism, or immigration, or the logic of submerging France in Europe, or the degree to which the rules of the market should rule France, Le Pen did better. She is obviously seeking to make a systemic attack on the policies that brought France to its present situation, but at the same time has to convince uncertain voters that she has not only a persuasive general critique but specific programs to ameliorate the problems of the here and now.
Her gibe that France would be led by a woman one way or another, Madame Merkel or her, was funny and was quoted in trailers for several hours afterward. On the other hand, when Le Pen was asked what she would do about the unemployment rate, she attacked the record of the Hollande administration (where Macron was an economics minister), and then Macron pointed out she hadn’t proposed many specifics of her own. Her solutions, what she calls intelligent protectionism, are radical within the present context, but are hardly broken down into specifics. They imply a change of direction as yet to be spelled out. After the debate, six establishment journalists convened and agreed that Le Pen’s polemics against Macron seemed contentious; they were perhaps effective as polemics but not really “presidential.”
I think the fact that BFMTV managed after the debate to gather six or so journalistic commentators to say more or less the same thing is evidence perhaps of the network’s bias, but more importantly of the fact that Marine Le Pen has not yet succeeded in really dividing the French establishment and convincing a solid portion of it that France’s present course—greater and greater submersion in Europe, greater and greater openness to Third World immigration—is a disaster. Events are very likely to change that calculation one day, but not before May 7.
The odd thing is that Macron, though probably far more open to freeing France’s economy by stripping worker protections (many of which are clearly outdated) and ripping down barriers to capitalist enterprise than his former socialist patron Hollande, is also much more of a general believer in “Europe” and open borders than any prominent French politician. Macron seems genuinely to not have a nationalist bone in his body. Under some circumstances, that might a virtue in a leader—postwar Germany is the example that comes to mind—but I’m pretty sure it’s not what France needs now.