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French election debate: A feisty affair but no game changer

Credit: AP

Well that’s what I call a political debate!

Minimum structure, no holding back on the insults, the moderators helplessly, and uselessly, urging restraint on the two candidates as they accused each other of lies and stupidity.

It’s true that we may not have learned a great deal, except that Marine Le Pen was desperate to throw a knockout punch and narrow the huge gap in the polls, and that Emmanuel Macron was still standing at the end. Comfortably so.

Unless the polls are horrendously wrong, nothing that happened last night is going to change the course of Sunday’s vote.

The pair did not hold back with personal criticisms. Credit: PA

This was a battle between clinging on to the past and looking ahead to the future.

“I like France as it is” said Le Pen, “with its culture, its language, its borders”. Macron’s vision, by contrast, was “a France that is reconciled with itself and one that is truly transformed”.

The evening was long on slogans, much shorter on specific policy proposals.

Le Pen confirmed that, despite some recent backtracking, she still wants a ‘New Franc’ to be put into circulation alongside the Euro. “That’s nonsense” said Macron, in one of the night’s politer moments.

Macon’s plans to reform the French economy and employment laws suffer from serious credibility problems, not least because he was a leading member of President Francois Hollande’s government which barely reformed anything in the last five years.

“Hollande Junior” Le Pen called him, which, given the outgoing President’s approval rating that hit 4% recently, may well have struck home.

Polls suggest Macron will turn out eventual winner. Credit: AP

The polls have hardly moved here since the first-round vote 10 days ago with Le Pen stuck at around 40% and Macron in a comfortable lead with 60%.

But there are some significant regional differences: in Provence in the far south Le Pen is actually in the lead, while in the northern rust-belt that runs from the Channel to the German border she is just a couple of points behind.

Not enough to change the final result, certainly, but enough to show how much progress the far-right Front National has made in the 15 years since Le Pen’s father fought Jacques Chirac in the head-to-head for the presidency.

France will head to the polls on Sunday. Credit: PA

Senior allies of Le Pen tell me privately that they are not particularly optimistic for Sunday, but that if the Macron presidency is a failure in the way Hollande’s has been, there may be no stopping them next time.

A Macron victory will be portrayed across Europe as the definitive turning of the populist tide - proof positive that Brexit is not contagious.

But Macron has at least acknowledged that if the EU doesn’t now reform itself then ‘Frexit’ could be next.

“Europe will be led by a woman. Madame Merkel or me”, predicted Marine Le Pen. A great line, and almost certainly true.

But with this campaign all over bar the voting, all the money is on it being Madame Merkel.

This article also ran in The Evening Standard.