My intellectual French friends said: “Mon dieu. We couldn’t watch the debate. The mud-slinging. The interruptions. I couldn’t bear it.”
Being neither intellectual nor French, I loved the TV debate on Wednesday night between presidential rivals Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. It was riveting, engaging and fulfilled its purpose of showing two radically different candidates with two radically different visions for France.
Centrist Macron kept his cool, and was poised and prepared throughout the two and a half hours. His ideas were clear, well thought-out and his demeanour was presidential. Marine Le Pen was also engaging at times, but lost credibility by confusing French companies (Macron explained to her the firm she was talking about made trains and not phones), a fatal error that she never quite recovered from. Her thinking on the euro (with the strange idea of creating a parallel local currency to use only inside France) was muddled and confused – and we’re none the wiser about what she actually wants France’s relationship with the single currency to be.
She spent too much time making personal attacks on Macron, on his proximity to big business and big finance (he was formerly a banker at Rothschild) and not enough talking about policies. Her tactic was to constantly make jibes at Macron, using innuendo and accusation in an attempt to make him lose his cool. He didn’t lose his cool.
Macron’s campaign pledges include closer regional integration, corporate tax cuts and labour reforms. He also advocates cuts to payroll taxes and a higher employment bonus for low-paid workers.
The only time that Macron was less than convincing was on terrorism. Madame Le Pen said he would be weak in dealing with jihadi terrorists, and Monsieur Macron mentioned that a lot of terrorists were French and so the country should examine its own conscience for letting it happen. He may not be wrong, but his argument may not go down well with French voters. Other than that, he was impressive.
The latest poll said front-runner Macron did better than his opponent in the debate, with 63 per cent of viewers thinking he was stronger – mirroring broader polling of voting intention for the second round on Sunday.
Markets like that poll, and they like the idea of Macron as President – not because “President M” will look after his friends (as Le Pen suggested) but because the spectre of populism and protectionism will have been pushed away (for now). He’s also a politician that represents hope for the future, with a clearly laid-out vision for the French Republic that is open, strong and confident. It’s no wonder he’s a popular candidate with the young. He made a positive argument for Europe and a positive argument for keeping open borders.
One of my favourite tweets of debate night was from film director Hugo Gelin: “Le Pen is talking about Macron. Macron is talking about France.” Most of the other tweets were focused on the poor two moderators, who couldn’t get in a word edgeways.
But there are still risks. Let’s remember about 40 per cent of the French voted for extreme parties (on the left or right) in the first round of the presidential elections. And people still need to go and vote. Turnout is key. The fewer people vote, the higher Le Pen’s share is likely to be. And the margin by which Macron wins (assuming he wins, but we should never assume) could be influential in the legislative elections in June. With no majority, his hands will be tied, and populism and protectionism could really take hold in France in five years.
I worry that if the charismatic centrist candidate can’t deliver on his promises for reform and growth, the French will become disillusioned, like in Italy. I worry that down the line Macron will become a casualty, just like former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. So this is not the time to be complacent. Macron needs a strong majority so he has a chance of getting things done. Without support, he’ll be a lame duck President.
If you’re French, please go and vote, for everyone’s sake.
These views are not necessarily shared by Bloomberg.