It was the first time that center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron and right-wing leader Marine Le Pen had met face-to-face.
The campaign ends, under French law, on Friday evening -- the final 24 hours before Sunday's voting serving as a day of rest and reflection as both sides return to their corner and lick their wounds. Indeed, many voters having cast their ballots in the first round for candidates who did not make it to the final, at least half the country is going to have to settle for someone they don't want.
Many voters are not happy with the two choices, and it seemed unlikely that many could wind up reassured after Wednesday night's marathon confrontation, watched by an estimated 16.5 million people.
The leading French daily Le Monde, which described the exchanges as "brutal and messy," likened the performance to the Clinton-Trump debates: "virulent and punctuated by numerous false affirmations," with Le Pen assuming the style of Trump, pointing out "19 of her lies" that its editors noted, while adding that "Macron did not totally respect facts."
In the end, Macron effectively came out on top since he did himself no harm, apparently maintaining the polling lead he held going in. At the same time, Le Pen may have reassured some fence straddlers who were wavering over her radical right-wing pedigree. An instant poll by Elabe for BFMTV
found some 63% of viewers found Macron more convincing than Le Pen in the debate.
This seemed to mirror the 60-40 advantage Macron held going into the evening -- polls that were remarkably accurate in predicting the results of the first-round balloting and that now also show that some 75% of all voters have already made up their mind
. But it is the undecideds and especially the abstentions that could determine the results. These are the people the two sides hoped to convince.
There were few new ideas presented. Both candidates tried from the get-go to paint the other in the least favorable light. Le Pen sought to tie Macron closely to the policies of the current Socialist President François Hollande who he'd served as minister of finance and who failed to run for re-election when his popularity as president plunged to single digits. "Why didn't you do any of this while you were minister?" Le Pen asked, calling him "Hollande Junior," and an "arrogant candidate of the elite."
Macron sought repeatedly to tie her to the deeply anti-Semitic, bigoted views of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front party that she's led for years. "Your strategy is to lie a lot," he snapped at several points. "Exploiting lying and fear, that's what your father represented for years and that is not what I want for France," Macron summed up his view of the contest.
The moderators tried, with limited success, to bring some order out of the chaos of the debate by asking them to discuss central issues of the campaign, to provide a snapshot of programs they sought to spell out when they were not being interrupted by their opponent.
On the economy, Macron wants even closer ties with the European Union to encourage growth and build his globalized vision of the world. He wants to continue to support the euro as the currency and reform the tax code, which Le Pen promptly seized on, saying it would be a means Macron would use to enrich the corporate titans and financiers who have supported Macron, who once served as a banker with Rothschild Bank. Le Pen in turn pressed her proposal to ease France out of the European Union with an eventual Frexit referendum, while moving France toward exiting the euro as its national currency.
On terrorism and security, there is a substantial difference between the two. Le Pen wants to close French borders to all further immigration, to thin out the terror watch list of the 11,000 names that security forces are unable to monitor -- stripping all those on the list with dual nationality of their French citizenship, then deporting them; adding 40,000 prison cells; and outlawing organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Macron countered, looking directly into Le Pen's eyes: "You are going to spread fear among the people," then pointed out that 70,000 have already been arrested and that closing borders is useless in an era when terrorists so often use the Internet as a weapon.
On France's international relations, Macron challenged Le Pen on her closeness to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Le Pen countered, saying that France needs to be equidistant between Russia and the United States, adding that she is the "best placed to talk with Trump, with Putin, with Theresa May," the British Prime Minister who is leading Britain out of the European Union.
The conclusion was simply put by Le Monde within minutes after the debate closed. "Two opposing perceptions of the world to come," the paper headlined on its website
. "Marked by tensions and false affirmations."
Now French voters will decide -- or at least all of those who can find the enthusiasm to come out and vote.