Author: NICHOLAS VINOCUR
The top five contenders for the French presidency faced off Monday night in a live TV debate that
was lengthy, heavy on policy and devoid of any knockout blows.
The spotlight was trained on former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, and far-right
leader Marine Le Pen, who are tied in the polls ahead of the election’s first round next month. On
Monday night, they clashed several times, accusing one another respectively of spouting “empty
words” and “lying to the French people.”
While the fireworks were few and far between, Macron, who had clearly prepared for a duel, was
the more combative of the two, though he failed to inflict any mortal wounds.
Former Prime Minister François Fillon came to the debate as a wounded animal. He has been
struggling to shore up his poll numbers amid a legal probe into his alleged misuse of public
funds and payments to family members. The conservative candidate largely appeared calm and
statesmanlike. But he was more subdued than in previous debates, when he had stood out with more
The two leftist candidates, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon, avoided attacking one another
and instead focused on the other candidates, mainly the frontrunners Macron and Le Pen.
Here are main takeaways from Monday’s debate:
1. Macron without a ‘wow’
At 39, Macron was the youngest candidate onstage by far and he faced the challenge of proving he
could hold his own. In this respect, he passed the presidential test, sticking to his message of a
“pragmatic” platform while avoiding being out-manoeuvred by the more experienced Fillon, a
former prime minister.
Having clearly prepared for a face-off with Le Pen, Macron unleashed several blows against the
National Front chief. During one tense exchange on religious clothing in public, he directly accused
Le Pen of “lying” to voters and trying to divide the country by attacking Muslim citizens. He also
fended off attacks from the two left-wing rivals who accused him of being beholden to corporate
But Macron failed to wow his audience. His insistence on the pragmatic platform overshadowed the
unique selling point of his campaign — that he is meant to represent youthful optimism. And his
debating style, at times a bit stiff, still needs work.
2. Le Pen rolls with the punches
With several polls showing her breaking into the election’s final round, Le Pen was an obvious
target for all her rivals on stage. Each took turns attacking the National Front party president on her
Euroskeptic program as well as her proposals to slash immigration rates, impose protectionist trade
policies and start friendlier relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Only when Macron
accused her of lying did Le Pen appear off balance. She retaliated by accusing him of being
beholden to corporate interests — and blatantly smirking during his closing address.
Remarkably, Le Pen avoided mentioning her controversial proposal to hold a referendum on EU
membership, a flagship measure. Instead, she insisted on what she called “economic patriotism,”
vowing to slap hefty import duties of 35 percent on companies that move jobs outside France and
try to sell goods back to French consumers.
Fillon blasted her anyway on her promise to leave the EU, saying it would condemn France to
bankruptcy and isolation. When Le Pen said the U.K. is doing “fantastically” well after its Brexit
vote, rivals shouted her down by saying that Britain had not yet felt the effects of leaving the union.
Le Pen’s measured performance seemed tactical, allowing her to stand above the sound and fury of
3. Fillon lives on — still
Following the cascading scandal over possible misuse of public funds, Fillon has been hurt by
flagging poll numbers and seemingly neverending negative press. The debate was his chance to
prove that he could still win after refusing to stand down.
In November, Fillon came from behind to win the conservative’s primary election, thanks — in
large part — to one masterful debate performance. He did not repeat the tour de force on Monday.
Instead, Fillon pursed his lips and endured as other candidates said they would ban MPs from hiring
family members — precisely what he did with his wife and children. He sounded subdued during
the debate’s first half, only showing a rare flash of combativeness when attacking Le Pen on her
proposal to hold a referendum on French membership of the EU.
Even so, on the whole Fillon displayed the kind of statesmanlike demeanor that won him the
conservative nomination in November — and many French voters may have been reminded of why
they liked him before the scandals. Ranked third in the polls, Fillon remains a force to be reckoned
4. Amiable Hamon, growling Mélenchon
For former Education Minister Benoît Hamon and his leftist rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the debate’s
big question was: could one of them deliver a knockout performance to establish himself as the
undisputed left-wing candidate?
The answer turned out to be no, as Hamon and Mélenchon avoided each other, focusing attacks on
their rivals instead. Fillon was assailed for his Thatcherite economic proposals; Macron for his
wealth and supposed links to corporate interests; Le Pen, for just about everything.
Hamon projected the same no-drama attitude that helped him win the Socialist primary against
former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, offering refreshing asides on the environment and preserving
his campaign’s feel-good aura. On the other hand, Hamon also at times appeared to be out of step
with the main thrust of the debate. His assertion that he was the “candidate of the payslip” sounded
too rehearsed — perhaps because he had borrowed the expression from Mélenchon.
5. Europe, qu’est-ce que c’est?
During the marathon three-hour debate, ample time was allotted to discuss the role of France and
Europe in the world. While candidates did discuss their plans for immigration, they never focused
explicitly on the EU.
Only Macron positioned himself clearly as being in favor of working within the confines of the
Union. Most remarkably, Le Pen glossed over her opposition to Brussels without clearly restating
her position on a “Frexit” referendum. The omission was likely deliberate: after the defeat of the
Euroskeptic Geert Wilders in the Dutch election last week, the French National Front leader may be
wary of too much talk of Frexit. The other candidates will be there to remind her.