The presidential campaign is nothing if not a test of endurance for the French public although there were moments yesterday evening when the televised debate felt more like a punishment. For four hours, the eleven candidates talked, or to be more precise, shouted, interrupted and ranted at one another. It was, in the words of Le Figaro, a 'cacophony' and one that 'rapidly turned the debate into a confusion'.
It was the first time in a presidential campaign that all the candidates, not just the principal ones, have debated and it will probably be the last. A second full-scale debate is scheduled for April 20th but Jean-Luc Mélenchon has already withdrawn given its proximity to the first round of voting three days later; last night's farrago is likely to encourage the other four leading candidates to follow suit,
It didn't augur well the moment one of the candidates, Philippe Poutou, a chippy Trotskyist in charge of something called the New Anti-Capitalist Party, refused to line up for the official photograph. Nor did he wear a jacket and tie, and nor did he make much sense, although he did provide one moment of unintentional hilarity when asked how he would make France more secure against Islamic terrorism. 'By disarming the police', he thundered.
Poutou was matched in his gibberish by the other Trotskyist, Nathalie Arthaud of Workers’ Struggle. Madame Arthaud certainly didn't struggle to make herself heard, shouting her answers with such frothy hysteria it reminded one of Rick from the Young Ones. Her style was in direct contrast to Jean Lassalle, a former shepherd, who had the face and physique of a rugby lock forward, and spoke slowly and with such a strong southern accent it was hard to understand what he was saying. Whatever it was, it couldn't have been more interesting than the fact he's president of the World Mountain People Association, apparently a global network of mountain-dwellers.
It was all very much in keeping with an evening described by France24 as 'more surreal than enlightening'. Like Le Figaro, the broadcaster described the debate as an 'interminable cacophony' in which the public learned little as each candidate spoke for approximately 18 minutes in total. It was an evening for soundbites, for the witty or cutting one-liner, and Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen scored points in that department on the day when the latest poll put them still neck and neck.
In her introduction, the National Front leader mocked Macron's ambiguity, his declaration that his En Marche! party was 'neither left, nor right'. There was no equivocation on her part, she said, explaining that her manifesto is clear, 'neither vague, nor untruthful'. Later in the debate, after a fiery exchange between the pair over Europe, Le Pen laughed at Macron for pretending 'to be something new when you are speaking like old fossils that are at least 50 years old'. Macron countered by accusing Le Pen of 'peddling the same lies that we've heard from your father for 40 years'.
The spectre of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, is never far from his daughter, but the main point of attack for her opponents on Tuesday was her wish to leave the E.U, as well as allegations of financial impropriety. Hours before the debate began it was announced that her campaign director is being investigated over a fake jobs claim, and both she and François Fillon were targeted by their rivals.
'I've always served the French, not myself', said Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the sovereigntist and leader of Debout la France [Stand up France], the strongest on the night of the six 'small' candidates. Poutou was more direct, saying of Fillon: 'The more one digs, the more it smells of corruption, trickery. These are the people who tell us we need more rigour and austerity, while they steal from the coffers'.
Fillon tried to rise above the melee, but he looked like a lot of viewers must have felt - weary and wishing he had something better to do on a Tuesday evening. He kept awake long enough to define what he believes makes an exemplary president: 'One who tells the truth to the French about the state of France and the reality of the world', he said. 'It is a president who after five years can say he has improved the life of the French'.
After four hours of chaotic debate, few French people will feel their lives have improved.