Up to 11m French viewers tune in to first presidential debate

Le Pen was aggressive and sarcastic, Fillon showed poise, and Macron appeared a novice

The first debate of the French presidential election campaign was widely considered the real beginning of the contest, with just over one month until the first round on April 23rd.

The fact that up to 11 million viewers – more than half the country’s television audience – tuned in at times during the 3½-hour debate, which ended at 12.30am on Monday, indicates how thirsty voters are for substance in a campaign that has been dominated by financial scandals on the right and extreme right.

In the past five months, the French have decapitated a deeply entrenched political class, by expressing dissatisfaction through opinion polls and in presidential primaries. Public hopes for renewal and a profound debate on the country’s future have disintegrated in a swirl of investigations into phoney jobs and bespoke suits.

As a result, more than a third of voters, a record number, say they will abstain. And half of those who intend to participate say they are not yet sure of their choice.


Four camps

The electorate is divided into four camps, each commanding close to a quarter of the vote: the extreme right, headed by

Front National

(FN) leader

Marine Le Pen


Emmanuel Macron

, the social-liberal, centrist leader of En Marche!; the conservative Les Républicains (LR) led by François Fillon, and two far-left candidates, the socialist Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the founder of “



Unfortunately for the left, their vote is split two ways, between Hamon and Mélenchon, or three ways, if one considers Macron to be on the left.

Monday night’s debate confirmed what was already known of the five leading candidates, but it cast no light on the essential question to be decided by this election: is France better off as a full participant in globalisation and the EU, as Macron says, or has it been pauperised by both, as Le Pen claims?

Le Pen was even more aggressive and sarcastic than usual, which could hurt her chances. She mocked rivals and rolled her eyes when they were speaking, behaviour at odds with her slogan of “a France becalmed”.

Poise and calm

At a time when some of Fillon’s electorate seem to be morphing into FN voters, Fillon expressed positions similar to Le Pen’s on political Islam, terrorism and immigration, but with greater poise and calm.

It was the first televised debate ever for Le Pen and for her chief rival, Macron. Both behaved as if their standoff in the second round on May 7th was already a given.

Perhaps because of his youth, Macron (38) appeared something of a novice. While other candidates looked at each other, Macron stared into the camera with his striking blue eyes. He responded sharply when attacked by Le Pen and Hamon, but meandered when asked to explain his policies.

In what was doubtless her most damaging strike against Macron, Le Pen told him: “You managed to talk for seven minutes, and I cannot summarise what you said. You said nothing. I want the French to take note of the fact that every time you speak, you say a little of this and a little of that and you never decide. One doesn’t know what you want and that is worrying.”

Broad electorate

Commentators speculate that Macron fears alienating any sector of his broad electorate. In what appeared to be a bid to win voters from Fillon in the second round, Macron repeatedly said he agreed with the LR candidate.

Macron seconded Fillon’s assertion that Le Pen would cause “chaos” by leaving the euro. While the three other candidates promised a bonanza of social spending, Macron pointed out that he and Fillon were the only ones who had prepared serious costings for their programmes.

Le Pen promised to “stop immigration, legal and illegal” by re-establishing national borders and cutting off the “suction pumps” of medical care and access to housing for foreigners. Macron espoused the current socialist government’s motto of “humanity and firmness” in dealing with migrants, and said the key was to process applications from asylum-seekers more rapidly.

The leading candidates mentioned what Macron called “the totalitarian jihadist threat” in their opening remarks. Le Pen said that “fundamentalist networks are proliferating, and represent an absolutely major danger for the French”.


The discussion of Islam in France was reduced to the whole-body women’s swimsuit known as the burkini, and the headscarf. Macron rebuked Le Pen for accusing him of being pro-burkini, saying, “I don’t need a ventriloquist.” He accused the FN leader of “dividing the French”.

Le Pen wants to extend a 2004 ban on headscarves in schools to all public spaces. “You cannot establish a clothes police in the street!” Mélenchon exclaimed.

Mercifully for Fillon, financial impropriety was barely mentioned. Mélenchon played the role of jester in the debate, winning the biggest laughs of the evening by complimenting debate moderators for being “as shy as gazelles” in broaching the scandals.

“When you say the debate was polluted by scandals involving some of us – I beg your pardon! Not me!” Mélenchon insisted. “Here, there are only two people involved: Monsieur Fillon and Madame Le Pen. So please don’t put us all in the same bag.”

Eleven candidates qualified for the first round of the election, but TF1 television station believed a debate for all would be unmanageable. Le Pen, Macron and Fillon regretted that six “little” candidates were excluded. All 11 candidates will participate in two more debates before the first round on April 23rd.