Paris (CNN)There was so much at stake that it was almost difficult to watch. And it didn’t disappoint.
For more than two hours, the anchors of France’s final presidential debate struggled to get a word in edgewise as the two election finalists took each other more frontally and aggressively than at any point in the campaign so far.
The result was electric.
On the economy, on security, on the history of France and on the very nature of its society, the far right’s Marine Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron laid into each other’s programs and into each other.
She wants to leave the European Union and NATO, to bring in economic protectionism and to close France’s borders. He is a pro-European globalist who represents continuity in policy terms but a desire to shake up France’s political elites.
Their two visions of what France should be could not be more different. Neither could their styles.
Since taking over the National Front from her father Jean-Marie, Le Pen has sought to tone down the party’s racist and anti-Semitic image, but she remains a populist who speaks to the guts of the French. Macron is an intellectual with a tendency toward wordiness. But tonight both got down into the pit with no punches held and no blows too low.
As Le Penspoke, French journalists fact-checked her every word, calling her out on several of her pledges and accusations. But it seemed almost unnecessary.
Macron, with a determined steeliness and a relentless calm, took apart her program and defended what had appeared to bethe harder case to make: that the answer to France’s problems was more Europe rather than less, more openness rather than any closure and a thoughtful rather than knee-jerk reaction to the terrorist threat.
Sitting directly opposite Macron, Le Pen seemed at times out of her depth, especially on the economy and on Europe. She also appeared to be speaking to her core electorate rather than reaching out beyond it with a message and style that might have seemed more presidential.
Instead she remained faithfully herself, and summed it up best at the end. “Perhaps,” she said, “people will say I am a bit lame, but I want to defend France as it is, ancient, with its borders and with its people who deserve better.”
This was Macron’s debate to lose. Any misstep could have cost him at least part of his lead in the polls.
Yet he chose to give as good as he got, proving at times even more aggressive and downright personal than Le Pen.
Macron’s final flourish, which was an appeal for a very different sort of change to the one Le Pen is proposing, is no doubt what will remain in the minds of voters.
“Your project,” he said, “is one that aims to live in fear and amid lies. It is what fed your father and the French far right over decades. The France I want is much better than that, it will not be divided. But we do have to leave a system that helped create you. You live off it. You are its parasite.”
By Sunday night in France, we should know which of the two visions so spectacularly laid out tonight the country has chosen.
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