It wasn’t exactly a contest for the ages. Shouty, ill-tempered and coarse, last night’s debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will not be remembered for anything that was said – because, in essence, nothing was said – but may well have settled the argument in the minds of a majority of French voters in favour of Macron.
The hard-centrist from Amiens looked, as they say, “presidential”. He was assured, unflappable and perfectly coiffed. Just as important, he was not intimidated by his slugger of an opponent and delivered just enough jabs of his own to reassure French voters they would not be sending another wimp (like François Hollande) to the Elysée.
Mme Le Pen (as Macron kept calling her – she prefers to be known as “Marine”) came across as a loud-mouthed brawler. She was like a street-fighter who has dropped into an East End pub late at night to unload on the subject of immigration, West Ham and why Tony Blair should be bloody-well hanged.
Like a lot of pub brawlers, the Front National candidate wore a permanent grin, as if to convince you that she was not about to shove a glass in your face. Sometimes she would lean back, flicking her blonde hair out of her face. At other times, she leaned in, reminding me of the late Mel Smith in those sketches with Griff Rhys-Jones in which, nose to nose, they displayed the full range of their ignorance.
Macron had, of course, the easier task. All he had to do was to show that he was bright (which he is) and that, as President, he wouldn’t frighten the horses. The French desperately want change, but only if things remain pretty much the same as now. They want order on the streets; they want jobs for young people; they want North Africans to keep their heads down and serve them their groceries; and they want a fat pension at 62. In other words, they want France to be France again, just like it was in the “miracle” years of the 1970s.
In a parallel France, the result could have been a win for Frexit, for which, in one form or another, some 49 per cent of voters opted in Round 1. But not in the France we know and love. Not yet, at any rate.
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Le Pen, as things stand, would be a reckless gamble – and the French know it. Yes, they like the idea of her as minister of the interior, cracking down hard on jihadis and sending planeloads of newly-arrived Muslim immigrants back to wherever they came from. Yes, they would like her to give Brussels a kick up the derriere and maybe, just maybe, bring back the franc. And yes, they would like all those closed factories, steel mills and coal mines to re-open, providing steady work for the army of the unemployed. But they know in their heads that five years of Pennisme would be at best a throw of the dice. It would be kill or cure, and a majority of voters just aren’t ready to take the risk.
According to polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of the debate, Macron came across as the more convincing to 63% of respondents against just 34% for Le Pen. Absentionism on the Left will bolster the FN total in this Sunday’s second round of the election, giving Le Pen perhaps 40% of valid votes cast. But whether Macron wins 63/34 or 60/40, the result will be the same. Only if voters wake up as Mr and Mrs Furious on Sunday morning does the Far Right have any hope of victory.
But hold on. Not so fast. For no sooner will the new President have donned his sash of office than the parliamentary elections will be upon us, giving Le Pen the near certainty of an increased block of the faithful in the Assemblée Nationale. Macron, meanwhile, can only hope that enough of his hastily cobbled-together En Marche party will be elected to at least give him the basis of a centrist administration. In parliament, the power dynamic could well be the reverse of that in the Elysée, with extremists of left and right pressing in on the soft centre.
Macron (who we should acknowledge in passing is 100 per cent bad news for Theresa May’s fading hopes of a relaxed-fit Brexit) will be forced to construct a governing coalition of Socialists, Conservatives and centrists that, while appointed by him, will then seek to go its own way in governing the country. It could work. It could give him the backing he needs to at least try to deal with terrorism, cut back on public sector employment, rein in the 35-hour week and create real jobs for ordinary French workers willing to carry on paying tax until they retire at 67.
But it could also end in chaos. The centre will not hold unless it expands and somehow catches the public mood. The trade unions, the Far Left (19 per cent of the electorate) and the Far Right (supported by 22 per cent) will be up for a fight. They could even, as in World War II, form a new Résistance dedicated to ending the occupation of the élite that has dominated their lives for the last 50 years.
I said a couple of weeks ago that Marine Le Pen’s relatively poor showing in the first round would probably mean the end of her political ambitions. I was wrong. She is playing the long game and already, it is said, has her sights set on the election of 2022. If so, and she loses again, that really would be the end of her – unless she plans to stand every five years until she drops dead of apoplexy. It is up to Emmanuel Macron to speed her demise. Has he the guts to do it? Has he the substance? Has he the policies and the means to enact even half of what he has promised? Barring accidents, we should know soon enough. I am not holding my breath.