In the recent French presidential debate, liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron beat right-winger Marine Le Pen with room to spare. Yet all it showed was how little the far right can be reasoned with, writes Barbara Wesel.
It was a night of new records: The debate between presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen was the fiercest in French history. Never before have leading candidates gone after each other so directly and aggressively. Macron is the youngest candidate ever and Le Pen the biggest liar: that much was made clear in the two-and-a-half hours of televised debate.
Macron hit hard and well
The liberal candidate showed his nerves of steel. Macron was well prepared and more effective than many presumed. Striking an experienced opponent like Le Pen can be like trying to stop a tank with your bare hands. Macron demonstrated grit behind his tempered, intellectual facade.
Macron stopped Le Pen in her tracks, calling her a parasite on the political system, the heiress of a dynasty of right-wing radicals, a preacher of hate and a fearmongerer. Meanwhile, Le Pen's strategy was clear: try to break him with insults and denunciations of being a lapdog of outgoing president, Francois Hollande, and a slave to an unjust financial system. It failed: Macron kept his cool, returning each jab in equal measure.
His strengths lie in economic policy, exposing Le Pen's empty slogans. She has no clue how companies work, what a currency is, how France's economy develops or how to counter unemployment. Macron had the head of Front National easily against the wall.
Le Pen's lies
By contrast, Marine Le Pen is propaganda personified. It makes no difference to her if her statements are true. Her comments on the euro, France's EU financial contributions and the benefits of Brexit: all nonsense. Fact checkers for the French daily, Le Monde, credited her with 19 lies and false claims.
Macron called out Le Pen's so-called economic program for what it is - promising everything without saying how it can all be done. That is exactly right: Her plans aren't policy; they are ideology built on a giant, imaginary money printer.
The 40 percent of French voters expected to still choose Le Pen cannot be stupid enough to really believe her and her party's promises. They do, however, badly want to believe them: less work, earlier retirement, zero competition, unending flag waving. Once upon a time in eastern Europe, such blessings of a communist "worker's paradise" were mocked. Now many French are dreaming of a far-right version of it.
Anti-German, as always
The debate revealed a return of anti-German sentiment, as well. Le Pen suggested that France's economic problems are Germany's fault. She claimed that Angela Merkel is the country's singular ruler. If that were true, things would be better off.
Macron, too, has played the anti-Germany card in the past - albeit more subtly. There's only thing that can be said in this context: Dear neighbors, take a look in the mirror and do not always fault others. Ultimately, it is you alone who are responsible for yourselves.
Engaging right-wingers is useless
The debate was highly entertaining, but what did viewers learn? Over sixty percent - the ones who will vote for him on Sunday - concluded Macron won. He demonstrated his knowledge of the economy, his adherence to facts and his ability to fight below the belt, when necessary.
Le Pen supporters will remain so, even after a debate that revealed her to be the undisputed daughter of her fascist father, and the queen of insults and trash talk. Her voters will be those who like nationalist rhetoric, xenophobia, marginalization and hollow patriotism. Front National is a party of belief, not understanding. Not even the sharpest and smartest debater can defeat such an ideology. Parallels to history are no coincidence here. From here on out, no one in France can say he couldn't have known.