For an American viewer, it was a Gallic clone of our own Republican primary debates a year before.
It appeared to be a form of wishful thinking, not unlike the broad assumptions of most American newspapers in October that Hillary Clinton was the presumptive heir to the presidency of the United States — not Donald Trump.
Indeed, the two races have a whole host of truly frightening similarities — and high stakes — that are worth examining before voters from Normandy to the Pyrenees head to the polls.
Underwhelming and alarming front-runners
If no single candidate receives more than half the votes cast, then most commentators believe Le Pen and young centrist Macron are the most likely to find themselves in a second-round runoff.
Both candidates are alarming, in their own way.
Macron, by contrast, is a 39-year-old political neophyte. He has no party machine behind him to back him in any tough battle in the National Assembly. Any of this sounding familiar?
And there may still be time for two other questionable candidates to cause an upset.
Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left candidate, seems to have succeeded in marginalizing the official Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon, who won the all-but-worthless endorsement of incumbent President François Hollande.
In no election in recent French history have the results been in greater doubt.
But CNN has refused to accept the validity of any of these polls, and for good reason.
The most motivated voters are …
As was the case in the United States, it certainly seems the most motivated voters right now are those likely to support the extremes.
That’s where France finds itself right now. As voters look ever more closely at all four leading candidates, none appears to have captured the imagination of France’s vast political middle that decides every contest.
But the hard-core base of each candidate remains. When the latest scandal erupted in Fillon’s universe several weeks ago, he called for a Trump-style rally on the outskirts of Paris, and suddenly it appeared he was back in the race.
Le Pen, meanwhile, seems largely immune to every scandal or misplaced idea that should torpedo a serious candidate in any Western democracy, rather like someone else who was declared out of the race more than once.
Corruption, gaffes and fake news
The question that has again been raised since is not dissimilar to the one that dogged Trump: Will her base really care very much what she says or does, especially in these final two weeks of one of the most contentious campaigns in modern French history?
The problem is that each of the leading candidates has his, or her, cross to bear — even serious questions of corruption.
Fillon was once considered a shoe-in. But then it was revealed he had much of his family, including his wife and two of his children, on his legislative payroll for years to the tune of about $1 million.
Much of this French chatter has been attributed to the proliferation of fake news, which is what Macron and a host of other candidates have branded the repeated stories that emerge and somehow persist against all evidence to the contrary.