Why France’s Presidential Elections Will Go Down To The Wire

The debate on the European Union confirmed the antithetical views of the two candidates, underlining their irreconcilable understanding of the European project.

The debate on the European Union confirmed the antithetical views of the two candidates, underlining their irreconcilable understanding of the European project.

On Sunday May 7, a divided France will be called to choose between two candidates who embody radically different socio-economics, cultures and territories. This dichotomy surfaced last night when we witnessed an historical debate between the two self-proclaimed outsiders of French politics jousting for the country’s top post. Despite their diametrically opposite visions, they accepted to engage in a fractious, compelling yet ultimately frustrating exchange. Unlike the U.S. presidential debate, the format followed in France nudges the two final candidates into a real dialectic mediated by journalists. In this case, the latter turned out to be two uncharismatic anchors with no leadership qualities, acting as agenda-setters and time-keepers, and both were brushed aside by the two candidates.

The tone, language and rhetorical devices embraced by Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron were unprecedented on the French political scene. The fireworks began almost immediately: Le Pen called Macron a “smirking banker” and depicted him as a Uberised free trader belonging to the system. Macron portrayed his rival as a reckless, dangerous liar, only capable of repeating “stupidities.”

The antagonists then initiated a wide-ranging, tense, two-hour-plus confrontation covered live by dozens of national and international media outlets. Fifteen million people — a quarter of the population — watched the broadcast while countless more followed it on social media, radio and websites. The debate ranged from the reform of the job market, to the state of the economy, via France’s social security system and the future of the European Union. And, beneath the surface simmered a struggle for who could legitimately claim to be the candidate challenging France’s entire political system. Was it the woman who inherited a party with a long record of political extremism or the man who was former adviser and minister of economy for the outgoing President?

What in fact emerged was a classic opposition between the two rival models of leadership currently dominating our times: Le Pen embodied the populist, Macron incarnated the technocrat. Populist leadership assumes there is only one authentic ‘general will’, which populists obviously claim to represent. While technocratic leadership assumes there is only one correct policy solution.

No surprise, then, that against this backdrop the policy debate never fully took off. Tellingly, this was a missed, unfulfilled opportunity for Macron. Indisputably, he had been prepared for a no-holds-barred onslaught from the Front National leader. Le Pen’s effrontery, barrage of personal attacks and provocations made it impossible for Macron to elevate the debate. This shocked observers: such jousts have been a time-honored French tradition seen in previous debates involving the likes of François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Valérie Giscard D’Estaing. By setting the tone, Le Pen eluded the policy contest on issues she was less competent about such as the state of the national economy or the euro.

But how much impact has the full-frontal attack by Le Pen made? How will voters respond to Macron’s defense, built on patient, Cartesian logic? We should not lose sight of the fact that nearly half of the French electorate voted for anti-establishment and EU-skeptic candidates in the first round.

While Macron compellingly highlighted the weakness of his opponent’s scattered policy ideas on mass unemployment or terrorism, he was less successful in mapping out his own economic vision. He did not reassure those voters concerned about losing out with the economic model he defends and promotes today. Voters who, like Le Pen, believe Macron defends “uncontrolled globalization” and will sell off state assets to the highest bidder. When he finally detailed his program, Macron’s message and language were more technical and therefore less accessible to many potential backers.

Only when Le Pen’s pervasive sloganeering fired up the debate did Macron’s fact-checking win over viewers.

If the independent centrist won the debate on merit, he did not necessarily do so on form (at least in the eyes of a significant part of the electorate). By branding the FN leader a “hate-filled liar” who feeds off France’s “misery”, Macron suddenly came across as condescending, not only vis-à-vis his opponent but also her electorate.

The debate on the European Union confirmed the antithetical views of the two candidates, underlining their irreconcilable understanding of the European project. Le Pen’s vision of Europe appears particularly untenable: it denies fundamental principles, such as free movement, the postulate of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality, or the primacy of EU law over national law. As for Macron, he was too busy unmasking his opponent’s inaccuracies to lay out his European project. This included Le Pen’s unsubstantiated proposal to embrace a dual-currency system within the Eurozone. Unfortunately, Macron’s longstanding pro-EU stance and emotional defense of Europe did not emerge during the debate.

Ultimately, I came out of this prime-time slugfest with one prevailing feeling: if Marine Le Pen was speaking to her electorate, Emmanuel Macron was speaking to the whole country. Despite the polls showing the opposite, it is too difficult to know which one holds the greatest numbers.

One thing is for sure: on May 7, France will decide not just its own destiny, but that of the European Union too. As a European I long to celebrate Macron’s successful resistance to Le Pen’s frontal attack to our liberal, pluralistic model of society. Yet, whatever the outcome of these elections, this should not distract each one of us from going back to work to not only defend Europe but also to transform it into a shared, citizen-driven project capable of addressing pan-European problems and being better comprehended by its citizens.