To find out who won this Wednesday’s debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, we will have to wait for the emergency polls in the coming hours and, above all, for the results of Sunday’s elections. The polls of the previous days gave the French president a comfortable advantage over the candidate of the National Association, and the former not only did not make any major errors in his interventions that could overturn those forecasts, but he was dialectically much more effective than its opponent. The doubt remains about the impact that his arrogant style, his restless gestures and his mocking smiles may have had on many viewers who do not finish digesting the smart-ass airs that have always accompanied the young president. In television debates, it is already known, the forms sometimes come to overshadow the substance, as happened with the famous face-to-face meeting between Nixon and Kennedy, which cost the former the presidency.
Le Pen maintained a moderate attitude –even at times subdued–, in line with the strategy she has been cultivating for some time in order to present herself as a statesman ready to assume the reins of the Republic. The far-right candidate knows very well that with her unconditional votes the accounts do not work out for her and that if she intends to reach the Elysée she needs to fish in other fishing grounds, among them the bag of voters who supported the radical leftist Mélenchon in the first round. . However, Macron did not sit idly by in the face of this display of restraint and devoted much of his dialectic artillery to demonstrating the “cynicism” and “contradictions” of his adversary. To prove, in short, that she is still the wolf of the story no matter how much she covers herself with a sheepskin.
On the issue of Ukraine, for example, Le Pen stated that she shared the European position on the “inadmissible invasion”, although she added that she would disagree with cutting off the supply of Russian oil and gas due to the consequences it would have for the French. “You can’t do harakiri,” he argued. Macron reminded her that seven years ago she had supported the annexation of Crimea by Russia and told her point-blank that in her previous campaign she had received a juicy loan from a Russian bank close to the Kremlin, which she has not yet repaid. “You cannot defend the interests of France, because it is very tied to Russia,” she snapped. Le Pen tried to defend herself by arguing that she is a “patriot” and that if she turned to a foreign bank it was her because she could not obtain credit in France due to her ideas. “False!” Macron cut her off. In this set, the far-right candidate came out visibly touched.
Le Pen was also exposed in the ’round’ on the European Union. He said with a small mouth that his will is for France to remain in the Union, but then he pointed out that, with the support of “allies” (of the extreme right, it is presumed), he would promote a “profound modification” of the project community. The idea, he explained, is to turn it into an “alliance of nations”, in which Brussels “respects the choice of society of the countries” (for example, that it does not act against governments that adopt homophobic and racist policies contrary to European values, as in Poland and Hungary). He also advocated overthrowing the common trade policy and radically changing the rules on immigration. He put it on a plate for Macron. “His project is to leave Europe, paint the facade the color you want,” the president told him.
Despite his efforts to convey an image of pontifical serenity, Le Pen aired the classic plot repertoire of the extreme right. He proposed eradicating “Islamist ideology”, immediately expelling the 4,500 Muslims listed as “radicalized”, closing some 570 “radical” mosques and, of course, banning the veil in public spaces, because it is a “uniform imposed by Islamists ” and we must “free these women”. Macron accused his opponent of “inflicting fear” on the population against Muslims by putting the veil, terrorism and immigrants in the same bag, replied that the veil is a religious symbol and made a fiery plea in favor of secularism and the Enlightenment as guarantors of freedoms. Le Pen also proposed changing the French nationality law, so that it is not accessed by being born in the country, but by having French ancestry, and defended giving priority to the French in access to jobs or social housing. Far from responding with ambiguities, Macron refuted it by invoking the tradition of tolerance and solidarity inherited from the Enlightenment.
At the end of the long debate, the moderators gave the opponents two minutes to make one last call to the voters. Macron presented next Sunday’s elections as a referendum on the European Union, on the importance of the Franco-German axis -which he strongly defended-, on secularism, on fraternity and also on ecology, taking into account that Le Pen proposes put aside renewable energies and focus on nuclear production. The candidate of the National Association, in her turn, attacked globalization, promised to “stop the predators from above and below” (in ultra language: the imprecise “elites” and criminal-immigrants) and offered priority to the French compared to foreigners in access to services and benefits. “Without complexes”, she added.
Macron is most likely to win in Sunday’s election. The question is by how much. Beyond all the reproaches that can be made to the president for his liberal policies that have provoked strong social protests (after all, he is a right-wing politician), something much more important than the presidency of a country is at stake: what is at issue is the future of the value system embodied by the European Union, the most successful democratic and economic project in history, which the extreme right intends to blow up, as Le Pen has made clear. It would be desirable for the French to mobilize en masse at the polls, as they have done on previous occasions, so that the defeat of the National Grouping candidate is overwhelming and the message is sent that the cordon sanitaire continues to be an effective collective weapon against push from the far right. A narrow victory for Macron would still be a relief, but it would leave unsettling questions about Europe’s political future. And let’s not talk about what would happen if Le Pen won. The die is cast.