by Ramin Mazaheri for the Saker blog

What a difference five years makes?

I wish I could report differently, but the long awaited French presidential debate was a total dud. Just like the whole election campaign was. And now, just like both candidates, too.

I wasn’t sure if I was watching Marine Le Pen or Sarkozyist candidate Valerie Pecresse, that’s how mainstream Le Pen appeared.

It was a total 180 from the 2017 debate, which was full of fireworks and a knock-down, drag-out brawl between a Rothschild banker and perhaps the continent’s best known far-right figurehead. It was over serious issues too: a Frexit vote, repudiating banker debt, possibly leaving the euro, austerity, etc.

Back then, my debate reaction column was how Le Pen clowns at debate instead of taking anti-austerity seriously. There wasn’t a quip she left unsaid, a false claim made by Macron which she let slide and a personal attack which hadn’t already been bandied about French cafes for months. She lacked moral seriousness, though – she was playing to the gallery and merely content to play the role of the joker. It was a major let down, because who else did we have in France who was going to end the Era of Austerity?

As a result she lost 2 to 1, and she expressed regret over her performance. Which is what it was – a performance – but politics is not art but morality.

In 2022 the only way I can explain what happened is this: For the past five years Le Pen has been a parliamentarian in France’s National Assembly. Prior to 2017 she was mainly hobnobbing only with far-right extremists, left-wing pariahs and various castaways who reject the mainstream’s nonsense. This is the only explanation I can give for what a radically different person she appeared to be.

She was Mutti – Germany’s mother, Angela Merkel – and not Marine. Macron was on the attack the whole night – hunched over, head in his hands, interrupting as a clinch every time Le Pen was scoring points – and Le Pen looked downright nice the entire time. She never took the bait, and she never really seemed like herself. Even on her bread and butter issue of security – on which she’s as bad as Macron – she looked like she had to fabricate some passion, finally.

Maybe the plan was for her to appear poised and presidential, to win over the centrist voter? What I saw was something similar to 2017: this is not someone who really “wants it”.

I wrote in 2017 and it still holds up – so even though it sounds strange you’ll just have to admit that the 2022 debate proves I was right. Heck, I even made it the lede sentence back then:

Unlike most Western countries, French politicians do not really do personal attacks. That sounds surprising, but they don’t even criticize each other’s programs with virulence.

The big surprise the day after the debate is how Le Pen did not attack Macron’s record, now that he actually has one and not just a program. It was really mind-boggling. It’s the advantage of every challenger and the disadvantage of every incumbent – a record.

I’ve extensively documented Macron’s record in columns, and I’m also doing so in my (currently being published in serial format) book, France’s Yellow Vests: Western Repression of the West’s Best Values, so I can say with confidence: Macron has an awful record.

I’m not going to waste time: All I can say is that Macron has proven himself totally unfit to hold public office if only via his weekly repression of the Yellow Vests. There’s much more than that, of course: corrupt ministers, inequality, authoritarianism as a way to pass laws, total rejection of transparency, etc. I’d give anyone else a chance to govern before he got second chance because you just can’t do what he did and get re-elected as a public servant.

My point is: Le Pen could have talked for the entire 2 hour and 50 minute debate just about the things which Macron has done which most voters don’t like. She didn’t.

What she did was play by that strange rule’s corollary: she talked about her program – the future, instead of the past.

Macron knows this corollary because he knows the game I have described: the final minute of his two minute summation was a bunch of seemingly-improvised pap about “protecting the children”.

People will say I’m too biased in their favor, but Le Pen only made two quick references to the Yellow Vests. (Of course Macron would never bring them up.) Why would she ignore them when every voter knows that for six months France saw blood in the streets every Saturday?

The answer: like all mainstream politicians, she disavows them, too. She won’t deign to touch them even if it will help her get elected. She’s totally on board with total suppression of them.

The Yellow Vests were right all along: Le Pen is a mainstream politician.

Even though when they first began the mainstream media insisted that they were Le Pen’s voters, they always told me they reject voting for her. I’d say what I heard from them is that 85% supported leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon and 15% supported the (pseudo) outsider Eric Zemmour. To a Vest they told me that Le Pen was part of the problem – she was a mainstream politician.

It’s a sophisticated analysis, because none of the mainstream media here sees it that way – they genuinely view Le Pen as an outsider and danger – and last night she was as mainstream as a baguette.

There was none of her outsider mentality on display in 2022, and that’s a real shame. French voters detest mainstream politics, but the mainstream is just too strong here.

The post-debate polls show that the debate didn’t sway anyone, and how could it? It was two politicians boring people with their plans on enormously broad concepts like schools, the environment, retirement, etc. All empty promises in the sky – nothing about the lives people have lived for five years. You saw what you wanted to see, because all they did was present themselves and their plans… yet again. They may as well have been in separate rooms.

And so instead of gaining a 5 point debate victory swing – as Macron did in 2017 – and making the polls deader than a dead heat, the post-debate polls are unchanged: roughly 54-46% in Macron’s favor.

Once again Le Pen blew it.

However, this time there was no illusion that she’s anything but a mainstream candidate now. She will likely only get more mainstream as the years go by. If she somehow wins it’s because enough voters say: “Boy, she really sounded sensible.” And she did – her proposals are only radical in the sense that they are pro-French sovereignty in the age of the European Union, euro and Eurogroup.

I wish I could have reported on this campaign differently because I hate to think I am depressing people, but this was simply a depressing, empty, absent and disappointing campaign. The issues at play were not at all as vital as in 2017. The debate epitomised this reality – it fit this campaign perfectly.

The reality is that in French politics the only interesting, necessary and vital movement is the Yellow Vests. However, their rebirth relies on the average person overcoming their fear of repression and re-donning the Yellow Vests.

The final vote is Sunday – which far-right mainstream candidate will win?

Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of ‘Socialism’s Ignored Success: Iranian Islamic Socialism’ as well as ‘I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China’, which is also available in simplified and traditional Chinese.


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