There were times during last night's televised debate between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron when it resembled more a playground slanging match than a pitch to become president of France. The National Front leader and her En Marche! counterpart traded insults, exchanged stares and did their best to shout each other down during two-and-a-half hours of enthralling but unedifying television.
A snap poll taken by French broadcaster BFMTV shortly after the dust settled on the extraordinary encounter showed that 63 per cent of people believed Macron had come out on top, while an online poll in Le Parisien newspaper also has the centrist candidate as the clear winner. There had been rumours in the French press before the debate that Macron would walk off set if Le Pen became too personal in her attack. His camp denied any such suggestion, and in the event the 39-year-old withstood a series of insults from Le Pen, who described him as arrogant, a marketing machine and a cold-hearted banker.
Not that Macron just sat there and took the abuse. He gave as good as he got, mocking Le Pen for symbolising the 'spirit of defeat', and continually calling her a 'liar', and the 'high priestess of fear' whose hate would 'bring civil war to France'.
'Virulent' was how Le Monde described the debate, while Le Figaro said it was marked by 'unprecedented brutality', and was a far cry from the first such presidential confrontation in 1974, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand swapped sharp but civilised blows. On that occasion Giscard d’Estaing emerged victorious, producing the most memorable line when he gently explained to his Socialist opponent that he didn't have a monopoly on the soul.
Le Pen and Macron aren't in the same class as those two statesmen but the one-liners that stuck in the memory came from the National Front leader. 'France will be led by a woman', she told Macron as they discussed the European Union. 'Either me or Madame Merkel'. And she also accused Macron of representing 'the France of submission', conjuring up the title of Michel Houellebecq's best-selling novel that depicted the submission of France to Islam.
Yet despite her superior one-liners, the smirking Le Pen failed to convey a presidential air. Referring frequently to the colour-coded folders in front of her, she made several factual errors and was vague on policy details when pressed by her opponent. Macron was slicker in his demeanour and more confident in what he said, repeatedly accusing Le Pen of distortion. 'You are talking nonsense', he said. 'I treat the French people like adults. I don’t lie to them'.
The pair presented vastly different visions of how they see the future for France, Macron believing the best years lie ahead if they embrace globalisation while Le Pen wants to protect her people from bankers, Islam and Brussels. Accusing Macron of wishing to turn France into 'a trading room', Le Pen made frequent references to her rival's two years as economy minister in Francois Hollande's government. She also charged Macron with being 'complacent' about Islamic fundamentalism and said he was happy to align himself with organisations that advocated violence against Jews, homosexuals and women.
Macron rejected the accusations and promised to shut down any Islamic organisation that promulgated such views, adding that France needed to 'examine its conscience' about why so many youngsters were turning to fanaticism. Reconciliation was what he advocated, warning Le Pen that her confrontational approach would lead France towards civil war.
And so it continued for the rest of the evening as Le Pen and Macron rolled their eyes, jabbed their fingers and generally unimpressed the millions sitting in front of their televisions. 'We may have just watched the worst debate in the history of the 5th Republic', exclaimed French journalist Bruno Jeudy on BFMTV, who must have felt for his fellow broadcasters, Christophe Jakubyszyn and Nathalie Saint-Cricq, struggling with the unenviable task of moderating the debate. Or trying to on an evening when French politics verged on the farcical.
The pair were still going at it hammer and tongs after two-and-a-half hours, a testament to their endurance if not their erudition.'"We've always been a generous, open country, one that is a light for the world and not a country of obscurantism', explained Macron in his conclusion. 'That's what I will bring'. Le Pen guffawed. 'With Francois Hollande'. 'No, don't start', pleaded one of the moderators, like the rest of us, desperate for it to end.
But Macron wanted the last word. 'Stay on television', he advised Le Pen. 'I want to lead the country'.