The first French presidential debate shows Emmanuel Macron has a lot to learn

Could the centrist's uneven performance spell the possibility of a François Fillon comeback?

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For the first debate of the campaign for the French presidential election, the five main candidates discussed domestic and international issues on live French TV last night.

François Fillon, Benoît Hamon, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon made their case for an astounding three hours and a half - a debate so long it lost its participants almost as much as its audience.

If you are unsure who’s who among the candidates, here is the NS’ guide to the French election.

The debate was the first to bring together the main candidates on one common platform - French presidential candidates have historically debated only in pairs, and most previous debates had only seen the candidates who made it to the election’s run-off face each other between the two rounds.

Polls currently put hard-right candidate Le Pen and centrist maverick Macron tied in the first place, both with 26 per cent of the vote. After weeks of mutual criticism via the media and their campaign teams, this was their first direct confrontation.

Marine Le Pen stayed true to her core policies, advocating for a return to a national currency, a referendum on France’s EU membership, increased security and border controls and an end to immigration: “I want to stop legal and illegal immigration,” she declared, before adding that legal immigration should be capped at “tens of thousands". Le Pen looked tense as she focuses her attacks on Macron, the only candidate who has only recently caught up with her (and taken over) in the polls.

François Fillon, the Conservative candidate whose campaign has been derailed by a “fake jobs” scandal for which he is under investigation, appeared measured, thanks to a “presidential stature” he developed during his years as Nicolas Sarkozy’s Prime Minister. His fraud scandal, just like Le Pen’s own “fake” parliamentary assistant jobs case, was only vaguely mentioned. This negligence from both journalists and his political rivals allowed Fillon to avoid the topic.

Le Pen copied Fillon’s silence strategy to her advantage in the second part of the debate: she kept silent for almost half an hour, while the other candidates went into petty disputes. Once she had secured ten full minutes to make for the time she had “lost” listening to the others, she was free to go full-on Trump mode, promising an “economic patriotism” and addressing the jobless, the old, the handicapped and everyone else who feels forgotten by the globalised elite. To Fillon who warned her that ditching the euro would have devastating consequences, she replied that this was just “Project Fear” (“Projet Peur”, as she translated it from the Brexiteers’ campaign trail.) “Brexit is delivering formidable results for the UK economy,” she added.

But she was not left unchallenged. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, whose main policies include introducing a universal basic income and a tax on robots, accused her of being “addicted to tabloid news” as she complained about dangerous immigrants, while hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon reminded everyone about Le Pen’s troubles with justice.

It is worth noting that both left-wingers have contemplated an alliance, but their differences on Europe and the role of Russia have led them to rule it out, splitting the vote and therefore banning the left from the run-up. During the debate, they only came to disagree as the topic turned towards international policy.

They could have been the left’s warring brothers, at least until Mélenchon, whose sharp humour, just like his tone of voice, seems to reflect a permanent state of anger, joked about a lively exchange between Hamon and Macron. “Let them talk,” he said, “we need a debate within the Socialist party.” Macron, who is running as an independent, was previously a minister in President Hollande’s Socialist government. He did not seem to enjoy the banter.

The current favourite to win the race, Macron knew he would be attacked from all sides, and yet his defence was quite weak. He fell in the trap Hamon had laid for him by mentioning the bank lobby, acknowledging that this “was probably for him” without offering a shot back. He fought back against Marine Le Pen when she provoked him on the burkini debacle, but his inexperience (he has never run a campaign before this one), for which he has been criticised before, showed in most of his lines - proudly delivered but obviously pre-written words, or obscure wanderings that Le Pen mocked as a “cosmic void.”

Fillon’s hard work to make voters forget about his scandal (and his presence at the debate) may well gain him a few percentage points, at least until another streak of revelations in his never ending scandal are published. Marine Le Pen once again painted herself as the herald of the people - a title she can hope to keep, as her faithful rarely read fact checks of the figures she quotes. As the left seems too divided to rule, it’s Macron whose debate performance matters. Whether or not he can maintain his claim to face Le Pen depends on his shaky rhetoric, and what he will choose to fill its void with.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.