France: First Presidential Debate
March 28, 2017
Kick-Off: First Debate Dynamics
On March 20, the five presidential candidates who nationally polled above 10% gathered for their first presidential debate, marking the official start of the French presidential campaign. The three-hour long, substantive debate on the future direction of France was divided into three parts: society, the economy, and France’s place in the world.
The candidates did not significantly stray from their talking points. Strategically, the four male presidential candidates attempted to make the lone female candidate, Marine Le Pen, appear uninformed with extreme views. Le Pen and three of the presidential candidates took swipes at the new front runner and political newcomer, Emmanuel Macron, who was criticized for playing it safe during the debate which made him appear thin on substance and style.
Far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon gave the most charismatic performance and was effective at dismissing Marine Le Pen’s attacks and ideas. Mélenchon has excellent oratory skills and he and Le Pen are fighting for voters who are the most disaffected by globalization. However, Mélenchon refrained from attacking his fellow left leader, Benoît Hamon, preferring to attack Le Pen and Macron, whom he accused of being a faux centrist candidate who supports “big money.”
Le Pen was combative, dismissive, and focused on her traditional themes: anti-immigration, national insecurity, anti-capitalist economic measures and the evils of free trade. She was characteristically unapologetic on issues of immigration and refugees, independence and nationalism – she notably said “I do not plan to be Angela Merkel’s Vice-Chancellor.” Although the debate did not touch upon the European Union that much, Le Pen repeated her opposition to France’s participation in the Euro and suggested that a vote could be held on France’s future membership in the EU.
Front-runner Macron appeared nervous initially but eased into the debate after his opening statement. Although Hamon sought to paint Macron as a right-wing candidate (as did Mélenchon and Le Pen), Macron remain above the fray and laid out his platform carefully to avoid positioning himself too obviously on the right or the left on the issues. It will be important to see if he can maintain this deft political balancing act.
The quieter voices in this debate were the two candidates from the traditional parties, Hamon and François Fillon. Neither candidate made a strong impression. Fillon’s candidacy has been overshadowed by an ongoing investigation into his alleged fraud and forgery, but he focused his performance on chastising the Hollande government for its policies. Hamon tried to demonstrate strength of conviction but lacked charisma.
Post-debate polls had Macron as most convincing candidate. Depending on the poll, Mélenchon, Le Pen and Fillon were in second, third or fourth place, but Hamon was unequivocally last. This does not bode well for the Socialists a month away from the election. Instead, the debate seems to have cemented Macron’s tie for the top of the polls with Le Pen, while Fillon’s relative silence may help him hover around his current third place, with 18% vote intention. Mélenchon has risen in popularity, in some polls overshadowing Hamon.
The next debate will be held on April 4th and will include all 11 presidential candidates. The final debate will be held April 20 th, three days before the first round.
In this most unusual race to the French ballot box, nothing stands still. French voters have been reminded of their own insecurity as they watched the tragic terrorist attack in London on March 22nd which brought back memories of last July’s devastating attacks in Nice. On March 24th, Marine Le Pen made a high-profile visit to Moscow where she met with Russian President Vladimir Putin – which had the indirect effect of highlighting her party’s lack of funding as the Front National had obtained Russian loans in the past. Over the weekend, Mr. Fillon was pelted with eggs at a campaign rally in southern France. And, as a reminder of the volatility of this election, the number of French voters who remain undecided is believed to be nearly 42% – with a majority of these undecided voters tilting in Macron’s direction.