Following the French Presidential debate, Andrew Smith believes that despite emerging as victor and boosting his chances of returning to the Elysée Palace, Emmanuel Macron still has many questions to answer from voters who remain sceptical of his ability to reform.

The stakes of Wednesday's Presidential election debate could hardly have been higher. For the far-right National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen, the key was not to lose so that she could wipe away the memory of a stinging defeat in 2017 which marked her as unfit to govern. For the incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, a win was needed to show that he still had the energy to inspire, that he could challenge the arguments of the far-right, and that he had some potential to win round undecided voters.

For the many French people who voted for third-placed left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, their decision for who to support will be guided by which of two factors weighs heavier: their dislike of Macron or their fear of Le Pen.

On the evidence of last night's debate, those weightings are unlikely to have changed. As expected, Macron was the clear 'winner' of the grand second round debate. He was clearly in command of his brief and demonstrated a positive vision for governance, borrowing from some of his left-wing rivals in terms of vocabulary and policies. Yet, in his desire to meet Le Pen's arguments, he exhibited exactly the qualities that many French people dislike in him: arrogance, dismissiveness and a patronising tone that can alienate those with whom he disagrees.

Le Pen, on the other hand, demonstrated many of the same behaviours as in 2017, even if her performance was a fraction more polished. She fumbled figures, lost track of arguments, and was frequently caught out on matters of detail. Her brandishing of a printed copy of one of her own tweets was not the rhetorical flourish she imagined and has already become the tweet that launched a thousand mocking memes.

Macron successfully attacked Le Pen on links to Russia, dismissing her protests she was a "free woman" by highlighting her outstanding loans from Moscow financiers. Le Pen complained that Macron had met Putin as well (as she was pictured in her election leaflets, scrapped hastily after the invasion of Ukraine) and the incumbent President shot back that he was hosting a head of state, not his personal banker. Macron consistently demonstrated her weakness on economic measures (notably trumpeting his own administration's successes in boosting French employment figures).

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At times, with crossed arms and an incredulous smirk, it became clear that Macron was set on discrediting Le Pen, sometimes at the expense of using the opportunity to address an open and positive message to the French people. He was also surprisingly weak on the environment, where Le Pen landed her one blow of the night. Labelled a 'climate sceptic', Le Pen replied with the barb that Macron was a 'climate hypocrite'.

This blow will sting for Macron, whose renewed emphasis on environmental policy was the centre point of his rally in Marseille the previous weekend. He has borrowed liberally from the policies and vocabulary of both the Ecology candidate Yannick Jadot as well as Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Most notably, this involves widespread tree planting and air quality policies, a sweeping home insulation campaign, and a dedicated Prime Minister to manage ecological transition (going fast enough to lead on climate, while slow enough to avoid new protests like the motoring-inspired yellow vest movement).

Winning round disappointed left-wing voters is the key for the election. Jean-Luc Mélenchon fell narrowly short in the first round, and the latest IFOP polling shows it likely that around 39 per cent of his supporters will vote for Macron, around 20 per cent will vote for Le Pen, and the remaining 41 per cent would be likely to abstain. For Macron, his attempt to win round more of those voters may yet fail, though in his constant discrediting of Le Pen, he may well convince more soft supporters to abstain. Le Pen has attempted to grow her support base amongst categories of working class and young people who feel forgotten by 'Macronisme', though these are also traditionally the least sure of turning out to vote. Her prospects look weaker as a result and she is unlikely to have won round new supporters.

Marine Le Pen needed to avoid making the debate an exhibition, and while she was less obviously incompetent than in 2017, this was still a depressing spectacle. The implied normalisation of her extreme right agenda presents a worrying precedent for political debate in France. President Macron may have scoffed, tutted, and expressed disbelief, though this debate allowed her to air plans for a constitutional coup promoting discriminatory and extreme nationalist policies under the guise of 'national preference'.

Macron rightly skewered the National Rally's inconsistent policies on Europe (they no longer want to leave, simply to destroy it from within) and on secularism (Marine Le Pen herself struggled to move beyond blatant xenophobia in a diatribe about immigration and crime). It is clear that the bulk of her policies are as dangerous in 2022 as they were in 2017, emboldened and accented by a long dalliance with the wider sphere of illiberal regimes such as those led by Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán. Yet, even in front of the lowest live TV audience since 1974, this was still a political set piece which saw the far-right play an active role in shaping French debate.

Emmanuel Macron looks well placed to win Sunday's poll, though it is increasingly likely that abstentions will be high and his mandate resultantly weakened. In June's legislative elections, this debate will flare again and so Sunday's election will not close off the political debate.

To achieve his reforms and promote the progressive nation he has promised, Macron will need to address those voters who feel left behind by his policies and to speak to a France increasingly split three-ways politically: his base on the centre-right, a disenchanted left rallied around Mélenchon, and the far-right. These pressing issues were not solved by Wednesday's debate, though many of their symptoms were on open view.

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