April 21, 2022 - 8:18am

The Macron v Le Pen TV debate last night was a strange affair. It was gripping and dramatic but also irritating and sometimes crushingly dull.

Who won? President Emmanuel Macron won because he did not lose.

Marine Le Pen also “won” because she performed so much better than in her calamitous presidential debate performance in 2017.

The instant view of French media was that the 150 minute slanging match was a draw with, maybe, a slight edge for Macron. That should be enough for him to win Sunday’s presidential election run-off comfortably.

The President had average 12 points lead in the opinion poll before the debate. Nothing that happened last night is likely to threaten that lead. It might conceivably widen his advantage slightly.

The great surprise — to me at any rate — was that Macron was so aggressive, even angry. The expectation, given his poll lead, was that he would be low-key and take no risks.

Not a bit of it. He constantly interrupted the far-Right leader, to the point of being irritating, which is generally not considered to be a vote-winner.

Compared to 2017, they reversed roles. Five years ago, Le Pen set out to attack Macron but she got her figures and her arguments confused. She made herself seem petulant and incompetent.

Last night Macron attacked Le Pen from the first minute. He came over as petulant — but competent.

In response, she kept her calm and mostly kept her facts and arguments in order. She landed blows on Macron for his health service, education and environmental records. Macron called her a “climate-sceptic”. She shot back that he was a “climate-hypocrite.” Both are right.

As a piece of theatre, the night was badly constructed because the greatest moment of drama came at the beginning.

While answering a question on the Ukraine war, Macron launched into a full-frontal attack on Le Pen’s links to Moscow and Vladimir Putin. Her party had taken out and not yet fully repaid a €9m loan from a Russian bank, he said. That made her a “dependent” of the Russian state. “When you talk about Russia you are talking to your banker, Madame Le Pen. That’s the problem.”

Le Pen protested that she had been forced to take the loan from Moscow in 2015 because the French establishment had prevented her from getting loans from French or EU banks. That did not make her Moscow’s creature. If you took out a loan to buy a car, did that make you a vassal of your local bank-manager?

President Macron also described Le Pen’s policy towards the European Union as a “false bill of goods”. She claimed that she wanted to stay in the EU, he said, but her entire economic policy, including  border checks and national preference on jobs and trade, would break EU law and smash the European single market.

Not at all, Le Pen replied. She wanted to stay in the EU but negotiate to turn it into a loose club of “cooperating sovereign nations”. Macron interrupted: “Yes, and so then it would no longer be the European Union.”

French media commentators thought Macron’s aggressive approach made him appear arrogant and discourteous but that it did succeed in knocking Le Pen off-balance. She had wanted to make the evening a prosecution of Macron; it ended up, at least partly, as a prosecution of her.

The centre-Right Le Figaro — no friend of Macron – said that neither of the candidates had landed a “knock-out blow” but the President had gained the “upper hand”. Viewers agreed. An Elabe poll early today made Macron the winner on the night by 59% to 39%.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.