What we learned from the first presidential debate

For the first time, a debate was held before the first round of the presidential election, bringing together the top 5 candidates. The lack of history behind this format* meant that neither viewers or candidates entered the debate with any sort of expectations. Debates traditionally take place between the two rounds of voting and tend to be a more polished affair, program versus program, vision againt vision. Yesterday’s debate represented more of an opportunity to finally talk about politics in a campaign that had been largely focused so far on the affairs of debate represented more of an opportunity to finally talk about politics in a campaign that had been largely focused so far on the affairs François Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

Clocking at three hours and 20 minutes, the debate was certainly not the most enthralling but presented — partially — the sort of political debate France and its voters need, and allowed to a certain extent to depersonalize the treatment of the elections. Voters deserve to move away from questioning whether Fillon is guilty and instead know who can lead their country and what vision they have for France. In this sense, the debate was a success, even if skirmishes around the burkini (if you had ever forgotten it existed) allowed some resentment to bubble up to the surface.

The expectations, if not curiosity, of how Emmanuel Macron would perform in this sort of setting largely highlighted what he still uses as one of his strengths, and repeated more than once throughout the night: that he is not a career politician, contrary to the four people around him. At first, the new favorite to win the race seemed to be a little bit stiff and still having a hard time to synthesize his policies in fewer words than necessary. In a symbol of his neither left nor right positioning, he was noticeable for openly agreeing more than once with his opponents on various policy issues. He probably had more to lose than to win from this debate and came out of it largely unscathed, a post-debate poll even showing that he had won the preferences of the viewers, followed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The same polls also shows that he was considered by a plurality of respondents to have the best project for the country and to best embody the necessary qualities to become president, even if he came in third in the ranking of candidates who seem to best understand people’s preoccupations.

Macron tried more than once to personalize the debate due to the criticisms levied by every other candidate regarding the fact that he had been a banker in the past, something that he openly claimed he was proud of. He was also criticized for his links to the world of finance and big businesses and faced a difficult task in explaining the nature of these links, something that may come back to cause difficulties in the near future. Macron seemed less comfortable on foreign and security policy issues, where the five minutes that were allowed to him did not give way to concrete proposals about the role of France in the world, even bringing Marine Le Pen to sneer in an awfully rude fashion at the “emptiness” of his remarks. The heated exchanges between the two symbolized the extent to which they are already looking at the second round confrontation, and their role as opinion leaders in France.

In contrast, close to none attention was paid to François Fillon, for whom this debate represented an incredible chance to finally be able to talk about his policy proposals rather than having to explain himself again and again about the employment of his wife and defend the very existence of his continued presidential run. Seeming at times disengaged from the debates, his lifeless performance, certainly a personal interpretation of what it means to look like a president, cannot have scored him any points outside of his hard-core supporters. There is very little to take out from his performance that cannot discredit the thesis that his voters mat flee to Marine Le Pen, already even in the first round of voting. Fillon miraculously escaped having to provide explanations on being charged by judges last weeks on numerous fraud counts, and did not elicit ironic laughs when asked about his ideas to moralize political life, nor was he openly attacked by other candidates, in what can easily be interpreted as a kind gesture of not pouring water on a drowning man — including by the largely unengaged moderators of the debate. Fillon’s punches on Macron — his competition for getting to the runoff — landed wide and he noticeably criticized Le Pen only on economic issues, highlighting implicitly the very little differences they have on all societal issues.

On the other side of the spectrum, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon seemed to fight for the honorific title of true representative of the French left, and managed to agree on everything except for the relationship with Russia, which Mélenchon sees with rosy eyes, while Hamon was the only one to explicitly condemn the annexation of Crimea in strong words. The debate was therefore largely crystallized between the two front runners (Macron and Le Pen), the pariah Fillon in his sad corner, and the two left-wing representatives, in an atmosphere that looked like the second round was already being played last night.

In this context, Marine Le Pen’s performance yesterday was surprisingly poor. Normally a good speaker, she was only able to highlight yesterday the “emptiness”, to use her words, of her project for France. She proved simply incapable of articulating any proposals for economic recovery, to fix unemployment, or simply escaped answering the question about her plans to leave the eurozone or the European Union. Disappointingly, neither the journalists or the candidates called her out on this or highlighted the risks of such a decision. She remained absolutely silent when the other four candidates were vociferously discussing economic programs (over one another shouts), in a beautiful symbol of her own unease with the topic (she also played the silent card when candidates discussed the relationship with Russia — some questions remaining better unanswered).

As tempting as it is, last night did not yield any losers or winners, nor did it change the hierarchy that a multitude of polls have established in the past few weeks. Emmanuel Macron will be happy to have escaped the debate without a scratch, and it will remain that in a debate where candidates mostly talked about themselves, he is the only one whose proposals on labor law were debated by all the other candidates. If Macron can continue to set the agenda in such a fashion in the next two debates and in the presidential race in general, he will score decisive points towards victory. He also managed yesterday to build up his presidential stature — albeit more on economic and social rather than foreign policy issues — contrary to a Marine Le Pen that appeared more than ever divisive, wavering and not living up to her own proposals.

It is clearly disappointing that foreign and security policy only got 15 minutes at the tail end of the debate. I pointed out on twitter, alongside many others, that it is the domain where the power of the French president is uncontested and where (s)he has the widest margin of maneuver, rather than domestic policy where either Macron or Le Pen may be constrained by an uncooperative parliament. Worse than that, the EU featured only for Marine Le Pen to talk about the wonderful effect of BREXIT on the EU, only for Fillon and Macron to point out that the UK had not yet left the Union, a fact seemingly unbeknownst to her. The latter both mentioned the importance of increased defense cooperation with the EU and especially with Germany, but the bulk of the mentions of the EU goes to Le Pen, in a tone that one can easily imagine was not conciliatory. None of the candidates took the responsibility to set the record straight and call her out, an option that Macron should seriously consider for future debates, in order not to let the EU fall down the drain again.

The next two debates will take place on April 4th and 20th, but will this time feature all 11 candidates who are on the ballot, with different dynamics and probably even more heat on Macron and Le Pen.

* Before this electoral period, TV and radio stations were legally obliged to give ALL candidates the exact same airtime. Rules were relaxed this year and only require that airtime be given in “similar programming conditions” (meaning that if a candidate speaks on primetime news, the other ten should also be given the same opportunity), doing away altogether with the time requirement.