Last Monday evening, France tuned in to watch the first of three televised presidential debates. Over three hours and 20 minutes, candidates described their aspirations for France, and the type of President they would be. Topics included immigration, employment and the European Union, amongst others. The French election system works with two rounds. If none of the candidates scores an outright majority in the first round – taking place on April 23 – the two front runners will go head to head in a second round.
Despite the promising format of a televised debate, many people struggled to see an outright winner. The five candidates stepped up to game-show-like podiums in an auditorium that resembled the set of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Participating were Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon, Beniot Hamon and Jean Luc-Melechon. The debate had been much anticipated, especially considering that last week Fillon, the previous front-runner and former Prime Minister, was embroiled in a very public legal inquest regarding the hiring of his wife and children as government advisors, which was subsequently proved to be a lie. Fillon, however, remained fairly quiet, alluding to the scandal only to point out that no individual is perfect, but that he is candidate with the most experience.
Macron also had much to lose. Running as an independent candidate, Macron has polled well so far, and many people were waiting to see whether he could perform under pressure. He is the youngest candidate, at 39 years old, and is arguably inexperienced on the campaign trail.
Macron, however, ended the debate in clearly the strongest position. He stuck to his line as the most centrist candidate, being pro-Europe, pro immigration and progressive in his vision. His initial statements were delivered cautiously but, once settled, he was quick to call out Le Pen on her diversionary tactics.
Le Pen was clear that she wanted to halt all legal and illegal immigration, calling for an end to multiculturalism, and sticking safely to her sound bites on security and protectionism, but her comments on violence in schools created a wave of rebuttals from the other candidates. Ultimately nothing new was seen from Le Pen, as she did not step out her comfort zone, but this is not something that will bother her supporters.
All in all, it is hard to say that anyone watching felt more informed about the actual policies of the candidates. No one dropped the ball, or had any Trump-esque sensational gaffs. The strengths of far-leftist Melenchon lie in his razor-sharp wit and oratory skill, which may have outshone the also youthful Hamon. Calling for a revolution of the Republic, however, he is unlikely to win. Le Pen was unexceptional, as was the serious Fillon. Macron delivered well enough, and despite his age seemed comfortable in the political arena. Rejecting the term centrist, Macron sees himself as neither left nor right. A Macron win would be a welcome development. He is confident and charismatic.
The winner of the election will be extremely significant, not just in France but for the international community. The election of a strong, reasoned and intelligent president is essential to guide France out of its current state of emergency and through the uncertain future of Europe.
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