Who won Wednesday night’s debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen depends on who is doing the scoring. In the spin room and on the social networks, Team Macron claimed a victory for the President. With the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, my reaction is exactly the opposite.
Le Pen was not crushed as she was in 2017. In a way, she won by not being terrible, leaving Macron unable to administer a coup de grace to her candidacy. She got stronger and more confident as the evening wore on; he seemed to become more defensive.
To be generous, Macron was not on form. As the three-hour debate began, his voice seemed almost to break as he described his ambition for France. Sincerity? Or the bravado performance? It was a strangely emotional beginning.
The conflicts between the candidates were predictable as they ground their way through international affairs, the future of the French social model, the environment, economic competitiveness, youth, security and immigration, and finally France’s troubled state institutions. These topics producing forests of what the French call mots de bois. Wooden words. But among the branches, one could glean fundamental differences on Europe, where Le Pen remains a sceptic and Macron an obsessive.
How much attention the television audience paid to these details is itself debatable. But millions will have dutifully watched, and they might well believe that Marine Le Pen is less toxic than advertised. She’s not brilliant but not as much of an entitled dunce as I have previously considered. True, she’s longwinded; certainly not profound or mentally agile. But she had done her homework. She remained disciplined throughout. Macron was often characteristically patronising.
As the debate drew to a close, Le Pen was calm as Macron interrupted constantly and on several occasions the President’s voice again appeared close to breaking. It’s taken for granted that Macron is a master of his dossiers and the President’s performance wasn’t terrible. But this was not the rout of 2017. He jabbed, he feinted, but he never knocked Le Pen to the floor.
The debate will have been exhausting for the pair and certainly for the audience. But it reaffirmed that this election is much closer than in 2017, where Le Pen was humiliated by Macron in their head-to-head and went on to lose 66 to 34 per cent in the voting that followed. Sunday's vote is likely to be far closer.