The first television debate of this year’s presidential election took place last night, with the five leading candidates trading blows on a range of subjects from education to immigration, employment to security.
The debate on French channel TF1 drew an audience of 9.8million, compared to the 5.6m who tuned in to the primary debate for the right and centre parties on October 13 and the 3.8m who watched the left parties’ primary debate on January 12.
As the programme started, candidates noted the ‘undemocratic’ absence of the six other candidates, who had not been invited to the debate by TF1 producers.
François Fillon, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron, Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon then debated vigorously for three hours and 20 minutes and French media pundits said none of the candidates made any glaring errors, though some noted Marine Le Pen struggled on economic issues.
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Recent polls have Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron leading the presidential race and they clashed when she said he was in favour of the burkini swimwear. "I don't need a ventriloquist," he told her. "When I have something to say, I say it clearly," before adding "The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocations is to divide society."
Mr Fillon, said commentators, was unusually low-key and appeared weary. In a reference to ongoing investigations concerning his wife being paid for fictitious work, he said "I may have made mistakes. I have defects. Who doesn't? But I have experience."
Social media was awash with comment as the debate ended, with one tweeter offering this summary of events:
The debate in a nutshell: Fillon isn't dead, Macron needs to work on the gravitas thing, Le Pen fails to score, Mélenchon elbows Hamon out.— Pierre Briançon (@pierrebri) March 20, 2017
A poll immediately after the debate by Elabe/BFMTV asking which candidate had been the most convincing revealed Macron in first place with 29%, followed by Mélenchon with 20%, then Fillon and Le Pen on 19% and finally Hamon with 11%.
A second poll of over 1,000 viewers, by OpinonWay for Le Point, also placed Macron as ‘the most convincing’, with 25% of votes.
Google research is another useful way to gauge the interest in the candidates during the debate. The name of Emmanuel Macron was the most typed on the search engine, with 30% of the queries.
Two other debates are scheduled before April 23, the first round of the election, but this time with all 11 candidates: on BFMTV and CNews on 4 April and on France 2 on 20 April.
Read the Connexion Guide to the French election, including candidate profiles and a glossary of words and phrases you might hear in the coming weeks.