Reaction to the big French TV debate between its presidential pretenders on Monday night has been mixed, with some saying the centrist Emmanuel Macron won, while others say firebrand leftwinger Jean-Luc Melanchon stole the show.
What of the established parties? The governing Socialists’ Benoit Hamon staked out clearly defined territory, and the main opposition Les Republicains Francois Fillon was restrained and possibly hampered by his ongoing fake jobs scandal, while the Front National’s Marine Le Pen said plenty to delight her supporters but offered little new material designed to swing more mainstream voters.
Melenchon was cutting about his rivals’ implication in corruption.
“I have to admire your brass neck when you say the campaign has been polluted by the corruption scandals some of us are implicated in. Well, I’m sorry, but not me, and I think I should remind the audience this concerns just two of us up here , Mr Fillon and Madame Le Pen, and the three others have nothing to do with that.”
With Le Pen he was scathing:
“You can’t establish a “clothes police” in the streets. Where do you think you are going with this? Are you going to stop people from having green hair, or wearing their skirts too short or too long?” he mocked. Then he moved on to immigration, the FN’s great cause.
“A limit on illegals you say, but what does that mean? How do you count them? You can always dream up quotas, tickets, or any measure you like, but some will always get through. So what do you do then? Do you throw them into the sea?”
Emmanuel Macron, ever Mr. Reasonable, agreed with everyone while insisting he had a different take on everything. Except we still don’t know what that is.
Marine Le Pen tried to take him to task on this.
“I know you support the idea but a few years ago there were no burkinis on our beaches Mr. Macron,” she pointed out. Macron was having none of it.
“No, no, please, play nice Mrs Le Pen, I’m not putting words into your mouth and I don’t need a ventriloquist. I can assure you everything’s fine and clear for me and when I have something to say, I’ll say it clearly, as I always do.”
However at times Macron appeared to agree with every other candidate in the studio, so what does make him stand out? How does he stake out his own territory?
Macron may prove to be a case study in style over substance, and that is seen as a weakness by some.
“You know Mr. Macron you have quite a gift. You’ve now been speaking for seven minutes and I am unable to sum up what you have said, because you haven’t said anything. It’s like an astral vacuum,” jeered Le pen.
In the current noisy French political climate it is, however, significant what candidates do not say, although where Le Pen is concerned even the slumbering Fillon stirred himself.
“The real serial killer of French purchasing power would be Madame Le Pen with her quitting the euro and the restoration of the franc,” said the former prime minister.
Le Pen responded that Fillon’s claims would be confounded by history. The moment, she insisted, was hers.
“Mr Fillon, you are peddling a Project Fear, the same tactic was used before the Brexit and before the election of Donald Trump,” she said.
The Socialist’s Benoit Hamon did score some telling blows about how his rivals were financed.
“Can you promise the French people here, tonight, that among your wealthy backers who have financed you and your campaign that there are not several notable representatives from the pharmaceutical, oil and chemical, and banking industries? I’m only asking, that’s all. Can you supply an answer?” he demanded.
This is the potentially the most open and unpredictable French presidential election in three decades or more, with the real possibility an outsider may win. But an outsider will struggle to rally parliamentary support in the legislative elections that follow in June.