Before Wednesday evening’s traditional presidential debate, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen drew lots to decide who would speak first and on which theme. Having won this preliminary contest, Ms Le Pen chose to open with the cost-of-living crisis – the hot campaign topic that has helped her to successfully normalise her public image and bring French far-right politics in from the cold.
That minor victory was probably as good as it got for the National Rally (formerly National Front) leader. As in 2017, Mr Macron proved himself a far more proficient debater with a better grasp of policy detail. He also embarrassed his opponent by repeatedly highlighting her party’s links to dubious Russian money following a bank loan taken out in 2014. Ms Le Pen maintained her composure and kept her temper – in contrast to five years ago – but emerged the clear loser on the night.
Ahead of Sunday’s second-round runoff vote, this constitutes another reason for moderate French voters to be cheerful. After a hair-raising period in which the race appeared to be on a knife-edge, the most recent polls suggest Mr Macron has established a double-digit lead over Ms Le Pen. Concessions on unpopular policies such as raising the retirement age have helped. Ms Le Pen’s determination to ban the hijab in public places, a pledge on which she doubled down in the debate, will help Mr Macron persuade hesitant Muslim voters to turn out for him at the weekend.
A mood of complacency, however, would be unjustified on two levels. Sunday’s vote could well see a record rate of abstention, as younger voters in particular stay at home. That in itself indicates a worrying degree of disillusionment, but the latest polling suggests that just under half of those planning not to vote may change their mind on the day, making a close outcome still possible. More fundamentally, if Ms Le Pen wins 40% of the vote or more, it will still be a landmark breakthrough for the French far right, with far-reaching implications. In the heart of the European Union, in one of its largest and most influential member states, an authoritarian nationalist programme would effectively have been legitimised.
Throughout the campaign, Ms Le Pen has downplayed the far-right themes that made her family’s name, but they continue to constitute the menacing core of her ambitions. Her proposal for a referendum on “citizenship, immigration and identity”, aimed at instituting a suite of nativist “French first” policies, would generate a constitutional crisis and turn France into a rogue EU state. A ban on veils in public settings would make France an outlier among democracies and foment civil conflict in its already tense banlieues. The domestic strife caused by a Le Pen presidency would be complemented abroad by the disruption of western unity at a crucial moment.
Having taken his eye off the ball while focusing on events in Ukraine, Mr Macron has rediscovered the focus that helped deliver a landslide 30-point victory against Ms Le Pen in 2017. But Sunday’s race will be closer, whatever the final result. Finding out why will be a crucial part of the postmortem to come.