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French election: Le Pen may have learned lessons from the past, but she failed to land a knockout blow on Macron

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The good news for Marine Le Pen is that history didn’t repeat itself. 

Five years ago, her presidential ambitions died at this stage, as she was comfortably out-thought, out-argued and outperformed on live television by Emmanuel Macron.

Back then, she seemed ill-prepared and ostentatiously angry. This time, she was calmer and clearer. The lessons of the past were learnt.

A change of image but a lack of detail

But learning lessons is one thing; putting that into action is another. Another of Le Pen’s ambitions was to soften her image and talk more about the economy than about immigration or her past deeds. And on that front, she had a difficult time.

For one thing, she struggled to respond to Macron’s barbs about her economic plans. How France will afford cuts to taxes, duties and, most notably, the retirement age, is yet to be explained.

And on immigration, the subject most closely allied to her political career, her plan to outlaw the Muslim headscarf was castigated by Macron as having the potential to cause “civil war”. France, remember, has the biggest Muslim population in Europe.

She went on to say that foreigners would be deported for committing crimes and that French people should get priority when it came to housing and jobs. Suddenly, she didn’t sound very soft after all.

‘A barely concealed air of intellectual superiority’

As for Macron, he was sharp on numbers and details, and made a great play of defending his successes as president, the value of the European Union and also lauding France’s place on the world stage.

But his body language was a curious mixture of crossed-arm exasperation, rolling eyes and harrumphing. Macron has often been accused of arrogance, and here was the reason why – a blend of condescension towards his opponent together with a barely concealed air of intellectual superiority.

He did land the debate’s biggest punch, when he confronted Le Pen about borrowing money from a Russian bank to support her political ambitions, and he was more assured on his facts.

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Like Le Pen, the president has recently made efforts to change his public image (we’ve had photos of Macron in sweatshirts and, bizarrely, a picture of his chest hair billowing out of the top of a shirt) but when the pressure was on, he had all the hallmarks of his past five years – clever, eloquent, but also rather pleased with himself.

Macron was the favourite coming into the debate and that won’t change. Le Pen probably needed to have landed some really big blows, and she didn’t.

Five years ago, she was walloped by Macron, who won two-thirds of the votes. Few expect him to win so comfortably this time, but, in a two-horse race, she is now lagging a long way behind and this debate offered little evidence that she will catch up.

Time is running out, fast.

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