Author: PIERRE BRIANÇON AND NICHOLAS VINOCUR
PARIS — French presidential contenders Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen traded blows for more than two hours Wednesday night in a televised debate that — for all its intensity — is unlikely to change anyone’s mind four days before the election.
Whether voters chose to abstain or turn out on Sunday, however, will be crucial.
According to most polls, supporters of the conservative candidate François Fillon and far-left contender Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who were knocked out in the first round on April 23, are considering staying home in large numbers.
The resulting equation looks different for each of the finalists, given Macron, the center-left former economy minister, enjoys a comfortable 15 to 20 percentage point lead over Le Pen, the leader of far-right National Front.
Here are the three takeaways from Wednesday’s debate.
1. Macron is already in a presidential mood
Macron had to avoid a major blunder that could prove costly, though likely not fatal, in Sunday’s runoff. He also had to refrain from appearing testy and defensive, as he did during the two televised debates that preceded the election’s first round, which he won with around 24 percent of the vote to her 21.3.
After Wednesday’s debate, Macron could claim mission accomplished. Even as Le Pen repeatedly tried to tar him with guilt by association, portraying him as an heir to the policies of unpopular outgoing Socialist President François Hollande, he stayed calm under pressure. However, he at times appeared condescending as he faced Le Pen and her seemingly weak mastery of the main topics.
Macron’s aim was to highlight the contrast between his own optimistic vision of what France can achieve versus what he described as Le Pen’s “culture of defeat.” Her protectionism, he said, was just a sign of a lack of confidence in the country’s capacity to deal with challenges.
He also needed to connect emotionally — not just intellectually — with the French citizens who didn’t vote for him in the first round: many of the poor, the unemployed, the left-behind and the downtrodden. He insisted that, like Le Pen, he has met and listened to workers who have lost their jobs and are fearful for their future.
“I hear their anger, but without your cynicism,” Macron told Le Pen at one point.
By remaining calm throughout — even when going on the attack or accusing Le Pen repeatedly of “talking nonsense” — the 39-year-old Macron projected the air of a man already ensconced in the Élysée, preoccupied with what to do come Monday. It may have helped assuage concerns, notably among conservative voters, that his youth and inexperience don’t make him presidential material.
2. Le Pen’s smirk tactics fail to charm
Trailing her rival badly in polls just days before the runoff, Le Pen’s aim was to discredit Macron and escape the narrative of her own defeat by proving she is ready to be the commander-in-chief. She went on the attack from the start, accusing Macron of being Hollande’s political heir — an “investment banker” who wants to turn France into a giant “trading room” where “everything is for sale.”
Le Pen focused on trying to knock Macron off-balance, to unsettle him enough to make him lose his cool and look unprepared for the presidency. Smiling, smirking and frequently laughing at Macron’s comments, she repeatedly told him not to get “too excited.” At one point she urged him to “take a sip of water, you’ll feel better.”
While Le Pen kept her poise throughout the debate and landed a few good one-liners, she often veered into mockery and bouts of dismissive laughter. Her attention was focused more on attacking her rival than presenting her own plans for reform. Macron used this to his advantage, countering that she had no serious plans for the country but instead thrived off fear and “talking nonsense.”
Still, Le Pen rarely appeared totally off-balance. A notable exception: When Macron quizzed her pointedly about her plans to pull France out of the European Union, she had no clear and ready reply.
All in all, Le Pen’s existing fans are likely to be comforted in their choice of candidate. It remains to be seen, however, whether undecided voters will be convinced to join her side after the debate.
3. Invisible voters still ignored
The debates’ two moderators, barely heard in almost 150 minutes, weren’t the only ones invisible in Wednesday night’s debate. The majority (55 percent) of French voters who, in the first round, chose neither Macron nor Le Pen had reasons to feel excluded.
Unemployment got only cursory mentions — mostly when the two candidates fought over their respective tax and spending policies — and the social issues dear to the Catholic voters who went for Fillon were largely ignored. At one point, one of the moderators had to beg the duo to talk about education.
The invisibles and their issues may not have been the point of this debate. But since job creation is consistently the top priority for French voters, a real discussion of the best ways to reform the economy seemed sorely lacking.
The monthly CEVIPOF/Ipsos survey published earlier Wednesday detailed the different characteristics of the two candidates’ electorates. Women, college graduates, the well-to-do, the under-35s and over-65s and inhabitants of big cities vote for Macron in greater numbers than the national average. Conversely, those more inclined to vote for Le Pen are men, those aged 35 to 65, the unemployed, farmers and those living in the countryside or in small towns.
The televised debate — for all its bluster and length — didn’t trigger a major shock to upset those trends.