Who were the winners and losers of the marathon French presidential debate?

Will three and half hours of historic and often belligerent debate live on TV between five French presidential candidates actually change anything?

Who were the winners and losers of the marathon French presidential debate?
Photo: AFP

Five of the main runners in France's presidential election race entered the same ring for an eagerly awaited and historic live TV debate on Monday night.

The current frontrunners, far right Marine Le Pen and liberal maverick Emmanuel Macron were joined by conservative, scandal-hit François Fillon, Socialist Benoit Hamon and the far-left wildcard Jean-Luc Melenchon.

With such a diverse range of potential future presidents brought together for a battle that lasted over three and half hours there were always going to be fireworks.

Le Pen blasted Macron for “speaking for seven minutes without actually saying anything” and Macron slammed Le Pen for “trying to divide the French” over the question of the full body Islamic swimsuit called the burqini.

Fillon mocked Le Pen when she suggested Brexit had been fantastic for the UK. He pointed out that Britain hadn't even left the EU yet. 

Hamon had a dig at the other candidates for suggesting his idea for universal income was the only original and really beneficial reform offered by any of them and Jean-Luc Melenchon lived up to his name as a firebrand by taking the fight to all four of his rivals and emerging as many people's winner.

He resented being asked a question about political corruption and transparency, pointing out that only Fillon and Le Pen are facing formal investigations.

In the most unpredictable French presidential race in memory many believed that the live TV debate could be crucial to the chances of the likes of Emmanuel Macron an unproven upstart and Fillon, struggling to move on from the fake jobs scandal that derailed his campaign in January.

So what was the conclusion?

A quick poll of TV viewers taken after the debate showed that in their eyes Macron was the most convincing candidate in the debate ahead of Jean-Luc Melenchon. Although it was only one poll.


Macron scored 29 percent of votes on the question of who was the most convincing candidate, ahead of Melenchon on 20 percent.

That surprised many analysts, or at least those on BFM TV, who thought Macron failed to stamp his authority on the debate or leave a lasting impression on viewers.

Most people considered Macron had the most to lose from the live debate given his rise in the polls and volatility of his voters. Given that he was expected to be the main punchbag the En Marche candidate will just be happy to emerge fairly unscathed.

But speaking after the debate Marine Le Pen once again criticised him.

“It was the first time I was in front of him and I take my hat off to him because I have never met anyone who could speak for several minutes without actually putting forward any clear ideas. Totally empty,” she said.

At times, especially when Macron talked of France's place in the world, it felt like Le Pen had a point.

The former Rothschild banker was keen to stress when he agreed with candidates, even Marine Le Pen when she brought up the subject of autism, but did he do enough make him stand out from the others?

For her part Le Pen was combative and belligerent throughout especially when attacked on her hardline stance on Islam and the burqini and her plan to pull France out of the euro.

Former frontrunner Fillon, 63 said Le Pen's proposal to ditch the euro and bring back the French franc would cause “economic and social chaos.”

Le Pen hit back accusing the former prime minister of operating “Project Fear”. Those who already back her would not have been concerned by the attacks against her and will have welcomed her willingness to take the fight to Macron.

For his part, Fillon, took a long time to get into the debate and was mocked on France's Twittersphere for going missing in the first half, when many were left wondering whether he had even turned up.

This spoof tweet warning the public that Fillon had been kidnapped after disappearing from the debate was one of many mocking the scandal-hit candidate for going missing.


Fillon had been hoping for a boost Monday after taking a battering over revelations that his wife was paid hundreds of thousands of euros for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant and allegations that he accepted luxury suits from a rich benefactor.

While he escaped any real attacks about the scandal which will have relieved him, Fillon came across as tentative and unwilling or unable to land any real blows on opponents.

He is running out of time to close the gap on Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, both of whom, polls say, will reach the crucial second round run-off vote on May 7th.

As for the two leftist candidates Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon there was only one winner.

While Melenchon's name trended on Twitter during the debate and he topped other public polls well ahead of Macron.

Analysts accepted the candidate, known for his fiery public speeches had outperformed his low poll ratings,.

Hamon, just as during much of the campaign so far, was fairly anonymous.

The snap poll of TV viewers revealed the public though Hamon was the least convincing.

Still with another debate to come involving all 11 candidates there is still plenty to play for and in this election race, anything could happen yet.

Candidates will await the polls in the coming days to fully know who were the real winners and losers from the TV debate.

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Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”