For those of us Americans who spent 270 minutes of our autumn in 2016 glued to the television debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the experience of watching Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron spar for 150 minutes, in their only exclusive debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential runoff, felt something like a cross between déjà vu and post-traumatic stress disorder.
There was Le Pen, with half-baked policy schemes as scattered as the disheveled piles of papers and files in front of her, but plenty of resentment and the attitude you’d expect from the self-proclaimed champion of France’s working class, the losers from globalization, growing immigration and Europeanization.
There was Macron, composed to the point of arrogance, already looking beyond May 7 and toward the June parliamentary elections (where his En marche movement is hoping to go from zero seats in the 577-seat French national assembly to a majority) and beyond to at least one five-year term as the youngest president in France’s history.
At times, as one friend noted, it felt eerily like the New York University experiment that swapped Clinton’s and Trump’s genders (much to the confusion of the experiment’s audience).
On both sides, just as with Clinton-Trump, there was plenty of condescension — none of the civility that marked even the most spirited of past presidential debates. Macron called Le Pen the ‘high priestess of fear,’ whose arguments were ‘stupidities’ and ‘nonsense,’ while she sneered and laughed at him as ‘Hollande junior,’ tying him to the deeply unpopular president who chose not to seek reelection. She mocked him from the first moments of the debate as the candidate of ‘wild globalisation, Uber-isation, precariousness, social brutality, the war of all against all,’ and later claimed he was ‘indulgent with Islamist fundamentalists.’ At one point, with no evidence, she even claimed the former investment banker had a hidden ban account in the Bahamas. While Le Pen jeered him as wanting to lead a ‘France of submission,’ Macron dismissed her nationalist protectionism as a ‘culture of defeat.’
By contrast, it would be tough to imagine such a divisive debate between Conservative British prime minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the leadup to the June 8 UK general election (at least, that is, if either May or Corbyn were willing to debate).
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Though no one called anyone a ‘puppet,’ the debates even featured heated barbs over Russian president Vladimir Putin — Le Pen’s campaign has accepted funds from Russian banks and she visited Putin in Moscow just weeks before the first-round election. Le Pen quickly struck back by accusing Macron of being a plant for German chancellor Angela Merkel, arguing that no matter who wins the election, France would have its first female president — either Le Pen or Merkel.
When she wasn’t snapping at him for insulting her, Le Pen was full of such quips throughout Wednesday’s debate. At one point, the hard-right Le Pen even managed to mock Macron’s private life reminiscent of Trump’s own gendered attacks on Clinton and Clinton’s husband: ‘You’re trying to play the teacher and the pupil with me. It’s not my thing.’ No one who’s paid attention to the 2017 presidential race could miss the subtext — Macron married his high-school French teacher, who he met at age 15, and who is nearly a quarter-century older than him (she just turned 64, he’s 39).
Even Macron’s rigid body language looked ‘presidential,’ while Le Pen’s body language sometimes veered to… the Trumpian:
— Margaux Baralon (@MargauxBaralon) May 3, 2017
Perhaps Le Pen’s worst moment came over the eurozone, when it appeared that she didn’t really know what her plans were, though she’s railed against the European Union for nearly a decade. Would it be a referendum? Six months? Ten months? Sixteen months? Does ‘Frexit’ mean leaving the European Union? Or just the eurozone? Or perhaps reintroducing the franc alongside the euro, as Le Pen has more recently suggested. Le Pen has distanced herself in the last week and a half from her most drastic comments about the European Union in hopes to attract more center-right voters who previously supported former prime minister François Fillon of the conservative Les Républicains, especially older voters who fear the devaluation that could follow a ‘Frexit’ event. It was clear to anyone watching that Le Pen has exactly no idea what she and her Front national would do with real power, though she dismissed the single currency in no uncertain terms:
[T]he euro is the currency of the bankers, not the currency of the people.
For all the emphasis Macron has placed on running as an outsider — the formation of his En marche movement last year; his resignation from the governing Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) of president François Hollande, in whose government he served as economy minister; his willingness to find allies on the center-right (like François Bayrou) as well as the center-left (like former prime minister Manuel Valls) — there was no doubt that Macron was the voice of the establishment, just as Clinton was in last year’s US presidential campaign.
Just like the Trump-Clinton debates, instant polls gave Macron a wide edge on points, though also like the Trump-Clinton clashes, there’s a sense that Macron’s rational case was aiming for the brains of his cosmopolitan, urban and educated base while Le Pen’s emotional case was aiming for the hearts of her rural, southern and de-industrialized base. There’s also a sense that few voters changed their minds as a result of the debate. That includes large segments of the supporters of third-placed Fillon and the fourth-placed leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who are now threatening to become ‘ni-ni‘ voters — neither Macron nor Le Pen — who plan to abstain on Sunday or skip the vote entirely. (In particular, Mélenchon’s holdouts are reminiscent of those US voters who first supported Vermont senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries and later refused to support Clinton in the general election).
But Trump never fell as far behind Clinton as polls now show Le Pen trails Macron. Even after a relatively good week for Le Pen, Macron still leads by a margin of between 18 and 20 points in the latest polls. All signs point to a victory (though Le Pen will claim a moral victory if she significantly outpolls her father’s 18% runoff total from 2002, when incumbent Jacques Chirac simply refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen).
At a regional level, Le Pen leads only (narrowly) in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the south, and she’s competitive only in Hauts-de-France (the far north) and Grand Est (the far northeast). She trails Macron by a margin of 69% to 31% in Île-de-France, home to Paris and nearly one-fifth of the French population.
Needless to say, France’s election is not a carbon copy of the Trump-Clinton race. France’s electoral system is a two-round affair, where the winner of the runoff’s ‘popular vote’ will win the presidency — there’s no elaborate electoral college. Immigration in France has a far different character and history as a policy issue than in the United States (the former’s Muslim population is around 7% to 9%, the latter’s is more like 0.6%), and the European Union and eurozone issues have no direct analogue in American politics. Macron isn’t as wooden as Clinton on the campaign trail, and he’s not a veteran of the French political system the way Clinton was in the United States. (He was born two years before Clinton would become the first lady of Arkansas, and he was only 17 years old when Clinton, as the first lady of the United States, spearheaded the ultimately failed attempt to reform health care.) Le Pen, unlike Trump, has been a prominent political figure for a decade, and she is currently a member of the European Parliament.
As much as Macron dismissed Le Pen as a fear-mongering parasite, he went out of his way to acknowledge the anger and fear of her voters. Instead of the ‘spirit of defeat’ that Le Pen offered, Macron would offer a ‘spirit of conquest,’ painting a France that could stand up to its challenges and compete in the world, a France that could protect religious freedoms without playing into the hateful prejudices of terrorists. Macron may have had his share of gaffes throughout the campaign (and Le Pen brought up several Wednesday night), but he was smart enough not to call her supporters a ‘basket of deplorables.’
Unlike Clinton, who was far more fluent in the prose of policy and governance than the poetry of campaigning, Macron more gracefully attempted to bring Le Pen’s supporters into his vision of a France that wouldn’t retreat from the 21st challenges of globalization — just as he did last week at sometimes testy appearance as a Whirlpool factory set for closure, engaging with workers angry about their futures and suspect about Macron’s program (who had only minutes early cheered on Le Pen, who crashed Macron’s heavily scripted event with labor leaders to take selfies with workers outside).
Le Pen, for all her antics, isn’t Trump. She lacks the showmanship, the decades-tested talent to play to the cameras, the willingness to shock and cajole and even spout utter nonsense in such a way that no one — neither supporters nor opponents — can seem to turn away from watching. Le Pen just doesn’t have that same panache, that joyful, if often divisive, pugilism. That may be one reason she’s running 20 points behind Macron.
Indeed, every sign points to a Macron landslide on Sunday. But for at least 150 minutes on Wednesday, the campaign felt uncomfortably familiar to Americans who, on both sides, are still scarred from the most divisive presidential election in recent memory.