I feel an obligation to comment on the debate but not much enthusiasm for the task. With the aid of two glasses of wine and some lively banter with a happy few on Facebook, who kept up a diverting conversation throughout, I made it through to the end and can therefore state with authority that no knockout punches were thrown. There were not even any particularly memorable petites phrases. In the end I would say everyone stands more or less where he or she stood going in.
For Marine Le Pen the finest moment came before the debate began. She stood on the platform with the four men, shoulder to shoulder, shook hands with them, exchanged smiles, etc. She revealed neither horns nor tail nor cloven hooves. De-demonized, in short, a normal candidate, even if she would make a far from normal president. Of course, in the debate itself, she showed herself telle qu'en elle-même, with her usual faintly contemptuous smile and "patriotic" disdain for everything even faintly foreign. She knows she will be in the second round and is keeping her powder dry for the inter-round debate.
For Macron the stakes were higher. He chose a strategy in keeping with his campaign overall: et de droite et de gauche, frequently agreeing with one or another of the others (except Le Pen), compulsively nodding in approval of this or that remark to indicate silent assent. But when an opportunity for disagreement presented itself, especially with Le Pen, he seized it eagerly, revealing a pugnacious counterpuncher beneath his blandly agreeable surface. What's more, he came across as feisty rather than drily technocratic. Occasionally he used more words than necessary, and when he uses words, no one will accuse him of poetry--he has none of Mélenchon's ability to savor his own speech, to chew his verbiage the way wine-tasters chew their wine. For him, language is an instrument. He wields it well enough.
Hamon held his own. His TV presence is appealing, even if the contrast between his debate presence, more or less pedestrian, and his meeting presence of the day before, when he somehow lifted himself above the political quotidian and for a moment soared in the lofty empyrean of the statesman, was made all the more striking by the proximity in time. His mistake, I thought, was to concentrate his fire on Macron (le parti de l'argent, which he attacked on lack of financing transparency) while sparing his real enemy, Mélenchon. Yes, he wants JLM's voters, but he had to give them a reason for switching, and he didn't. I was also struck by the prominence given to Thomas Piketty and Julia Cagé, seated directly behind where he stood on the platform. I confess I felt oddly implicated in the campaign. Hamon is using Piketty as a branding device--"parmi mes soutiens il y a un économiste mondialement connu"--and I had something to do with establishing the brand. But in fact Hamon had nothing to say about inequality.
Mélenchon enjoyed himself immensely and rewarded his audience with a few bravura passages, but otherwise his truc was all too familiar. Let's be done with the Fifth Republic, return power to the people, stop pissing on Putin, and tell off Europe. On the latter point his frequent agreement with Le Pen should have embarrassed him but didn't. He doesn't even seem to notice a problem in the convergence of the extremes.
And that leaves Fillon, who fully merited the appellation "Droopy" last night. He was strangely subdued. Trying to appear relaxed despite being under investigation for corruption, he smiled a lot, unaccountably, but his smile came across as more Mephistophelean than it should have. He likes to project la force tranquille but looked to me more like la force tranquillisée. He joined Mélenchon and Le Pen in expressing sympathy for Russia and did not flinch at the fleeting mention (by Macron) of the fact that two of the candidates on stage were at grips with la justice. Otherwise, everyone tiptoed around the scandal, as though Fillon were already dead meat and it would only look cruel to peck at the corpse.
The two anchors contributed little but timekeeping to the affair, which is probably appropriate. All five of the contenders displayed a facility with language and a fluency in regard to the issues at which I can only marvel (and of course regret that no American politician can rise to such a level). Despite the fact that several of the candidates expressed discomfort with the exclusion of the six lesser contestants from the debate, I felt that five was quite enough, more than enough, and was grateful for being spared the likes of Dupont-Aignan and Jacques Cheminade, though I always rather enjoy Philippe Poutou. who has a delightful way of pronouncing "la gauche."