Throughout his forensic, if at times patronising, dismantling of Marine Le Pen’s arguments during their nearly three-hour live TV debate on Wednesday night, there was one term that Emmanuel Macron never employed: “far right”.
In the opinion of most French commentators – and voters, 59% of whom found the incumbent a convincing presidential candidate, against 39% who said the same for the Rassemblement National (National Rally) leader – Macron won the clash.
He savaged Le Pen over her ties to Russia, picked gaping holes in her plans to ease the cost of living crisis, exposed the internal contradictions in her Europe policy and pointed at the incoherences of her proposals on energy and the environment.
Macron was precise, competent – and also arrogant, his biggest character flaw. Le Pen, on the other hand, while she stumbled and at times was simply outgunned, was infinitely more affable, composed and better prepared than in their 2017 debate.
That in itself was a win of sorts. But neither candidate landed the kind of crushing blow likely to make a material difference to the race for the Elysée, which polls suggest Macron may win by up to 12 percentage points in Sunday’s runoff vote.
There is one sense, however, in which Wednesday night represented a very significant victory for Le Pen. For nearly three hours, 15.6 million French viewers watched their president engage in serious and respectful debate with a far-right politician.
Twenty years ago to the day, on 21 April 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round of the presidential elections in a political earthquake. The eventual winner, Jacques Chirac, refused point blank to debate “intolerance and hatred”.
France’s 2022 presidential debate marked the full normalisation of the party now led by his daughter, and of its policies – the culmination of a 15-year push on her part to detoxify the Front National, soften its jackbooted image, and transform it into a “normal” party.
Le Pen wants to hold a referendum on “citizenship, identity and immigration” law that would enshrine discrimination in France’s constitution by installing a “national priority” for French citizens in employment, social benefits and public housing.
The law would exclude non- and dual nationals from many public sector jobs and restrict their access to welfare, also cancelling automatic citizenship rights for children of non-nationals born in France and making naturalisation harder.
The same referendum would enshrine the primacy of French law over international treaties, to allow France – as she said in the debate – “to solve the problem of mass, uncontrolled immigration so the French choose who comes, who stays, who leaves”.
Le Pen also doubled down on her wish to outlaw the Islamic headscarf in public places. “I think the veil is a uniform imposed by Islamists, and I think that the majority of young women who wear it cannot do otherwise,” she said.
Macron said her immigration plans were a product “solely of fear and resentment”. Her hijab ban was a “rejection of liberty and tolerance”, a breach of the freedom to religious expression enshrined in French law, and would “start a civil war”.
He said her referendum was “unconstitutional”, and that France would be stronger in a stronger, more independent Europe rather than in Le Pen’s nationalist-protectionist vision of an “alliance of nations” – a plan “to leave the EU but without saying so”.
He did not, though, describe her proposals as far-right, or attempt seriously to argue that behind the successful rebranding of the Rassemblement National – and Le Pen’s own makeover – lay a set of policies that remain those of the populist far right.
According to the polls, it looks reasonably likely that Macron will be re-elected on Sunday. He may well also be able to put together a working parliamentary majority after the National Assembly elections in June, relying probably on support from the moderate right, although it will not necessarily be easy.
But he will face a radically different landscape divided, as the veteran observer of French politics John Lichfield argues, into three blocs each representing roughly a third of the electorate: a wildly disunited left dominated by the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon; Macron’s own centre/centre-right; and a nationalist far right.
The far right is every bit as divided as the left. If she loses, Le Pen will face a power struggle. Her niece, Marion Maréchal, could play a big part in that, backed by Le Pen’s first-round rival, the polemicist Éric Zemmour. They may well be joined by more hardline figures from the defeated mainstream right.
If, and it remains an if, he does secure another term, Macron risks being confronted with populist opponents on two sides – one of them a radical right that is, on Wednesday’s evidence, wholly assimilated into France’s political landscape. It could be a critical five years.