French presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron went head-to-head on Wednesday night, in a TV debate that, in true Gallic hardcore fashion, began at nine in the evening and went for two-and-a-half hours, candidates and moderators seated at a large table, all the better to preserve their energy to bang on endlessly. “You both wanted a debate that didn’t go on for four hours,” a moderator said, moving them on. Four hours? Four hours? Good God. Both Madame Defarge and Toyboy went at it hammer and tongs the whole way through. Emmanuel Macron’s goal was to show that Marine Le Pen had a grab bag of popular slogans and no real answers to France’s problems; Le Pen wanted to smoke out Macron as a “mondaliste“, a globalist somewhere between Francois Hollande and Francois Fillon, a battle between attrition and exasperation.
Macron would appear to have had the better of it, on sheer points, leading Le Pen into one dead end after another, showing her policy statements of economic globalisation, the problems of unemployment and structural change to be little more than a series of protest slogans and a series of proposals that don’t hang together. He caught her out most convincingly on the problem any economic nationalist faces: rising prices for imports, with any scheme for protecting domestic business. “You want to cut drug prices, yet 80% of our drugs are imported,” Macron said in genuine irritation. “Are we now denigrating our wonderful French pharmaceutical manufacturers?” Le Pen replied, a hint of desperation in her eyes.
But if Le Pen was trapped on matters of policy detail, Macron was pincered on his insider status, his heritage as part of the Parti Socialiste, and his bedrock commitment to Europe in pretty much the form it’s in.
To watch Le Pen in action, in this lightning-quick two-week second round, is to watch a right-wing party throwing everything, everything overboard in its quest to create a right-left synthesis at the base level. Such parties once had a strong line on the deserving and undeserving oppressed, appealing to mid- and upper income working-class people in part by marshaling them against benefits recipients, low-income and marginal workers and the like. Now, Le Pen throws around the term “precarity/precariousness” so much you’d think you were at a LaTrobe social theory seminar. She tried to assail Macron on a supposed crackdown/job test on the dole, arguing what an insult to their dignity it was. By that she means the ethnic French people receiving it, of course, but it is still a way, way out for a hard right party to go. It’s also a risk. Such parties have always run on some idea of personal morality, of parasites versus virtuous hardworking people. Le Pen is throwing the net so wide for those doing badly out of globalisation as to erase those divisions entirely.
On foreign affairs she went on an extended thing against imperialism, yes, imperialism, arguing that Macron was a representative of a movement that wanted to “intervene everywhere and moralise to everyone” — “this is the world of Thatcher and Reagan and the world of the ’80s, and it’s only you who believe in it anymore”. So the National Front now turns its guns on Thatcher and Reagan, who are now liberals. And so on.
Macron may have got Le Pen on issues of not having any sort of plan for about half an hour in the middle, and God knows how these things play to the key social sectors, but on a sheer performance level one would have to give it to Le Pen. She had Macron on the defensive much of the way through when he should have had her trying to defend her contradictory promises. She was appalling, grinning, jeering, mugging, needling — “have you calmed down yet?” “don’t get upset” etc, etc — in a way that populist insurgents can get away with. There was no doubt she was mocking his masculinity at various points, drawing on his youf and perhaps, domestic arrangements: “Whoever wins on Sunday, a woman will be ruling France, me or Angela Merkel, because she will dominate you.” Ou- fucking -ch. Much more of it was straight out of the Trump playbook. But Le Pen combines that with a grasp of the figures and an ability to fish out embarrassing facts from Macron’s record on an instant’s notice. It’s a formidable combination. It appeared to really rattle Macron. His final two-minute wrap-up began with a blustering attack: “You lie, you make up things about your opponent.” It was personalised.
With Macron having lost ground over the 10 days since the first round — or so most believe — it wasn’t the result he needed. But of course it was the result ordained by the asymmetric politics of our age — one in which populism has thrown away any sort of pretext of a framework whatsoever and simply offers everyone everything. The class split along the knowledge division makes it possible, indeed admirable among certain groups, to have no answers to anything, because the very fact of connecting things together in an analytic form is itself suspect. The groups that Macron is from have by and large lost faith in the ability of the general public to take a hard and complex argument.
For anyone watching, Macron’s path to a victory on the night appeared to be simple: to say you have no plan, it’s just slogans, over and over, here’s our plan and why it will work in three easy points. It’s not that he tried to do it and fluffed it. There appeared to be no strategic structure to his response at all. It is of a piece with Barack Obama’s disastrous first debate in 2012, the piss-weak Remain campaign in the UK, and Hillary Clinton’s absence of a response to put to Trump. There is very indication that such people feel so superior to their populist opponents, or have so little of a program that is so little distinction from mere calibrated administration, that they have no raw material to draw on to make a striking claim or proposal. What else can explain this further asymmetry: that the right-populist forces everywhere learn from each other, adapt and add strategies in a, well, mondialiste fashion, while the mainstream globalist, free trade, best-of-everything candidates simply repeat the same failure, in exactly the same form, with minor cultural variations, all across the world? The stunned mullet, le mullet etonne, Das Bestruken Scheissfisch, and so on. It’s as if none of them have access to the internet. When your political platform is based on the supremacy of knowledge and enlightenment, and fails to learn anything, you know that you’ve entered into a period of Bourbon-like blitheness.
Macron’s faltering comes as concern over his performance and the possible consequences of left abstention have passed from concern to panic to an emergency. “We talk to the Ni-Ni’s,” the headline of Liberation screamed today — the Ni-Ni’s being the “neither-nors”, those who will emphatically refuse to vote. By some accounts, that now includes as many as two-thirds of Melenchon voters, or 13% of voters — with the possibility that a goodly proportion of those who would vote would go from Melenchon to Le Pen. Impossible to know if that abstention figure is accurate, and its final number depends to a degree on contingent factors, down to and including the weather on Sunday. But nothing Macron said in this debate is likely to help much; looking for a pitch of a concrete plan, many people will have seen only bluster and hauteur.
This it seems would be ground zero for the moral collapse of the elite in our time: seated at the table, with a grinning, mugging gimmick merchant on one side, from an actual fascist party, the heir presumptive could not even take his own side in the argument. How far do such elites fall before they collapse entirely? On Sunday, we shall find out.