It was the burkini that brought Monday night's debate to life between the five main presidential candidates for next month's French election. For the first hour of the televised debate there had been much posturing and postulating but no sharp exchanges. That changed when Marine Le Pen accused Emmanuel Macron of turning a blind eye to the burkini, the Islamic swimwear that last summer caused such controversy in France. Macron rejected the charge, telling Le Pen in a forceful exchange she was a dangerous provocateur. The centrist candidate, who claims to be 'neither left nor right', then went on the counter-attack, accusing the National Front leader of sowing divisions within society by attempting to make four million French Muslims 'enemies of the Republic'.
It was one of the few memorable confrontations during three hours of debate that told us little that we that we didn't already know. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left candidate, is a Gallic George Galloway, a sharp wit to accompany his crackpot ideology, while his Socialist rival Benoit Hamon bore more than a passing resemblance to a ventriloquist's dummy so leaden was his performance. Francois Fillon, the centre-right candidate whose ethics have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, seemed relieved to be able to finally discuss campaign issues, but he lacked sparkle as he tried to convey a statesmanlike air.
As for Macron and Le Pen, who according to the latest poll are neck and neck in the race for the Élysée Palace, their performances will have pleased their supporters but probably have done little to sway those who say they're abstaining from the election, which according to Le Monde, could be as much as 32 per cent of the population. Macron was articulate but lacked authenticity, prompting a withering attack by Le Pen, who sarcastically lauded his 'mad talent' for hot air. 'You've spoken for seven minutes,' she said. 'I am incapable of summarising your thoughts. You haven't said anything. It’s absolutely empty.'
Le Pen, in contrast to the polished prose of Macron, radiated pugnacity, snorting with derision when at one stage Hamon said immigration to France had remained stable over thirty years. It doubtless delighted her supporters but what will it do to the undecided voter who fears Macron is right when he accuses the National Front leader of seeking to divide still further a country already struggling with its identity?
The other issue on which Le Pen took aim at Macron was Europe. 'I want to be the president of the French Republic', she said in her opening address, 'I don’t aspire to govern what has become a region, a vague region of the European Union. I don’t want to be Madame Merkel’s vice-chancellor'. The unashamedly pro-Europe Macron mocked Le Pen's wish to leave the EU, pointing out that across the Channel 'all those people who said Brexit would make everything possible, the day after [the vote] they did a runner'. Francois Fillon, who shares Macron's view on the benefits of the EU, joined in the attack, accusing Le Pen of wanting 'to drag the country into social and economic chaos'.
'That’s called Project Fear, Mr Fillon', retorted Le Pen. 'It was used before Brexit'.
As for what the people made of it, that depends where you look on Tuesday morning. An online poll in Le Parisien, the daily newspaper for the French capital, had Mélenchon way out on front, while readers of the centre-right Le Figaro believed Fillon had scored best. A poll for the TV station, BFMTV had Macron the winner.
In truth, no one candidate stood out from their rivals but they'll have another chance to impress on April 4th in the second debate and a third opportunity a week later. Not that all the French will tune in. Purchasing a selection of newspapers from my local kiosk in Paris this morning I asked the vendor if he'd watched the debate. 'Are you serious!' he exclaimed. 'I've got better things to do with my time'.