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French presidential debate may have changed some minds

media Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron faced off on live television Wednesday night. Reuters/Eric Feferberg

Wednesday night's French presidential TV debate pitched Emmanuel Macron’s pro-EU programme against Marine Le Pen’s France-first nationalism. A poll showed 63 percent of the 16.5 million viewers found Macron the most convincing. On the streets of Paris, Le Pen came out the loser.

Morning commuters at Paris’s St Lazare train station were surprised at the level of intensity of the debate and the violence of the confrontation.

“I am shocked, surprised by the quality of the debate,” said Soufiane, who works for a sporting federation and voted for Macron in the first round.

Le Pen’s “only objective was to attack Mr Macron”, he said. And, though Macron was also aggressive, “he was calmer, and more serious and clearer in his ideas”.

Swapping accusations

Le Pen started the evening on a combative tone, calling Macron, who is a former banker and served as economy minister in Socialist President Francois Hollande’s government, “the candidate of the elite" and the "the system's sweetheart".

Macron fought back, calling Le Pen “the heir of a system” that has fed off anger in France, in reference to her National Front party, which was founded by her father, Jean-Marie. At one point he called her a “parasite of the system”.

Jacques, a retired export manager, said he had to turn off the debate.

"After one hour it’s enough!" he said. He, too, is a committed Macron supporter and the debate was not going to change his mind.

Does Macron have what it takes?

Alain, a business manager, said Macron struggled to look presidential.

"Everyone is saying 'I’m not sure about him, does he have what it takes to be president?'," he said.

Alain did not vote in the first round. He would have voted for former prime minister Alain Juppé, had he won the mainstream right Republicans' primary, but he could not bring himself to vote for the scandal-hit winner, François Fillon.

In this second round, though, Alain will cast a ballot for Macron, despite the candidate's youth. 

"He is 38 years old, so he behave like he’s 38," he comments. "As we say in sport, he will beef up. He’s very smart… I think he listens, he has sensitivity, so he’ll beef up."

Undecided voters

This debate was unlikely to change the minds of any committed supporters of Macron or Le Pen. But there are still an estimated 18 percent of undecided voters and it may have had an impact on them.

"I was what is called a ‘Neither, nor’," says Jamilla, a tax inspector, who voted for Nicolas Dupot-Aignan in the first round.

An independent Eurosceptic, Dupont-Aignan won just under five percent of the vote in the first round. He formed an alliance last week with Le Pen, who says he will be her prime minister if she is elected.

Jamilla says she was considering voting for Le Pen because of her approach to security issues. But now she’s hesitant.

"What changed my mind was Marine le Pen’s aggressiveness [during the debate]. I think a president needs to contain herself," she said.

She also has concerns about how Le Pen talked about the euro single currency during the debate.

"There are inconsistencies about the ecu and things like that," she said, referring to an exchange during the debate about the coexistence of the franc and a European currency during the 1990s.

Mélenchon voters may be swayed

Another type of voter who may have been swayed by the debate is a supporter of  hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won seven million votes in the first round.

Many of them hace said they would not vote or would cast a blank ballot in the second round because of Macron's free-market programme.

Nicolas was one of them, until Thursday night.

"I wanted to cast a blank vote. Not abstain but cast a blank vote," he said. "But, given the debate and the way things are going, I think I will vote for Macron to save the country. There was a lot of propaganda coming from Mrs Le Pen, a lot of inaccuracy, incompetence - errors, approximations on sensitive issues, like the euro and Europe. We can’t let France be run with such a lack of preparation on sensitive issues."

Mélenchon supporters have talked about the choice between Le Pen and Macron as being one between the plague and cholera.

"With a bit of distance and after the debate, we cannot compare Le Pen and Macron," said Nicolas. "I was hesitating before last night but after the debate I decided I don’t want this person."

To read our French presidential election 2017 coverage click here

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