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Winning a Debate, or Winning the Election? The Stakes of the Second Round Duel by Hélène de Lauzun

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Winning a Debate, or Winning the Election? The Stakes of the Second Round Duel

"Le Duel a l'Épée et au Poignard" (The Duel with the Sword and Dagger) (1617-20), an etching from Les Caprices Series B, The Nancy Set, Jacques Callot (1592-1635).

Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Macron and Le Pen: same time, same place, five years later

The second round debate is traditionally a key event in a French presidential campaign. The one that aired on the 20th of April, 2022, had a very special feature, as it was the second time Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron would vie for France’s vote for president. 

With the memory of the 2017 debate still fresh, it was predicted that this round would be a replay of the one five years earlier: a catastrophic performance for Marine Le Pen, a moment of pure nightmare which certainly played a role in the very mediocre performance of the national right-wing candidate a few days later, as she only received 33.9% of the vote. 

Expectations from her supporters were, therefore, very high—likewise, the risk of disappointment also ran high on the part of all those who hoped for revenge. 

The doldrums: debate boundaries, rules, and progression

Analysis of this debate is not a simple exercise because one has to ask oneself what exactly was supposed to happen. The opportunity, finally, to judge Emmanuel Macron on his record, to point out his limitations, his contradictions? To denounce the scandals in which he is wading? These ambitions may have been part of the objectives of this debate, but certainly not the only ones. Marine Le Pen had to play the long game in this debate exercise, and an immense pressure must have weighed on her shoulders. On the one hand, she had to wash away the affront of 2017, but on the other hand, she had to remain focused on the one and only goal worth mentioning: to win the second round on Sunday, April 24th. For that, she needed to reassure and convince the abstentionists and the hesitants. The two objectives did not necessarily overlap in terms of method and strategy.

The debate was long, very long. Too long. 

Almost 3 tedious hours, watching technocratic measures being churned out, without breath or passion, in a discussion so corseted by journalistic rules that there was hardly any room for charisma or the unexpected. Everything in the debate organisation had been arranged to make the exercise as boring as possible. A very Swiss control of the speaking time down to the second—may our Swiss friends forgive me—was palpable, imposed upon a school sequence of questions that never gave the candidates the possibility of getting to the depth of things, or provided space for ideas to evolve into a lively discussion. 

Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that the debate failed to enthral. The evening attracted just under 15 million viewers—the lowest audience ever for the second round in French political history. The famous debate between Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand in 1974, which allowed the former to win in extremis had gathered more than 30 million people in front of their television screens. We are a long way from that. 

The sequence of themes was quite catastrophic. The debate began on purchasing power, leading viewers to drown in indigestible arguments over figures from the very first minutes. The themes of security and immigration did not come up until very late in the debate—after more than two hours had passed, when many French people had already gone to bed. In the whole evening, not a single word was uttered on defence issues. This seems surreal when the whole world is preparing, perhaps, to plunge into a war of unprecedented proportions. The word “army” was never mentioned. We must take note of the French decline. The France of General de Gaulle is no more, and international politics, despite Emmanuel Macron’s fondness for showing off his telephone bills with Russia and his long conversations with Putin, is done without it. 

There was not a single word about culture either, even though France is slowly dying from not knowing how to tell its story or make its children dream. 

Without an army, without culture, politics in 2022 appears terribly dry, and turns into an insipid administrative conversation worthy of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet.

The debaters’ performances

All agree that the first half of the debate was not in favour of Marine Le Pen. She appeared off, too wise, not daring to reply to Emmanuel Macron when there were good opportunities to finally confront him on his bad record of numerous failed responsibilities. Gradually, she gained confidence and revealed a fighting spirit on issues where her opponent’s negligence was obvious, such as health. On the question of reforming institutions, she had some good ideas that clearly destabilised her opponent. 

Throughout this debate, Emmanuel Macron was ‘the man of lies.’ 

Lies told with force never become truths. There were many of them told during the evening, repeated by the president. Despite his denials: yes, Macron has indeed generated €600 billion in debt, less than a third of which is attributable to COVID; yes, there are 400,000 more poor people in France since he became president; yes, he did intervene, notably with the help of his wife’s daughter, to suspend a project to build wind turbines in Le Touquet, where he has his second home by the sea. Even the fact-checking units of TF1 and Le Monde, which are quick to play into the hands of the government, were forced to acknowledge this.

But Emmanuel Macron was, above all, the candidate of arrogance and condescension. His body language never ceased to betray him. Sighs, crossed arms, raised eyebrows, mocking sneers, disdainful pouts accompanied Marine Le Pen’s remarks and contributed to making him particularly unbearable. As the debate progressed, his tone became more and more annoyed and feverish. He multiplied chin strokes in the direction of the two journalist hosts, without daring to look his opponent calmly in the eyes. Everything that the popular electorate usually hates about him was expressed that evening with unparalleled power. It is not certain that by such behaviour he succeeded in winning the hearts of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s voters, who are still hesitating to vote for him. 

What to think of Marine Le Pen’s performance? It was certainly an unremarkable and unenthusiastic debate. But it was a debate consistent with the strategy that the candidate of the Rassemblement National set for herself several months ago, one she implemented with obstinacy and perseverance: to moderate herself, to refuse being baited into outbursts, to reassure. Some may have been disappointed that she did not bite off more, or that she did not attack Macron on selected issues, such as the McKinsey affair. 

Yet, for Le Pen, this would have been a dangerous game to play: Macron was waiting for her with bated breath on these volatile subjects, as shown by his hysterical delight when, after two hours of debate, she uttered the word “McKinsey.” He shuddered, and thought he would blow her to pieces. But after the allusion, she did not dwell on it and continued her argument. A miss for her, perhaps. For him, surely. He couldn’t lock her into the role of the evil far-right conspirator who loves rumours and scandal. Marine Le Pen played her part, calmly, while remaining imperturbable, smiling, with a soft voice. It was important that she not get carried away as she did in 2017. 

One may go hungry gnawing at this minimalist attitude, but there is the objective to consider. Two questions sum up the stakes of this debate for her: following her performance, will a left-wing voter be more inclined to vote against her to ward off the “fascist peril”? Obviously not. Were those who wanted to support her disappointed enough not to vote for her in the end? No, they won’t. Perhaps that’s the point.

In conclusion, this debate has not allowed us to distinguish between a winner and a loser, even if the major titles of the French press are singing with conviction the victory of the champion who subsidises them. It is more interesting to ask who lost the most in this debate. It is likely to be Emmanuel Macron because his dismissive attitude may have alienated voters who were still reluctant to support him as a protective measure against Marine Le Pen. Conversely, Marine Le Pen probably did not appear to them as being all that dangerous and deserving of mobilisation against her. 

More than ever, the fate of the election is in the hands of the abstentionists, the undecideds, and the popular electorate who can’t stand Macron anymore but who still hold back their hand before slipping a “Marine Le Pen” ballot into the box. Will this be enough to win? See you on Sunday for the final word.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).