A documentary on the wall about Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the 2017 French presidential election showed his campaign staffers punching the air and screaming in delight as they watched his televised debate against Marine Le Pen. The prime-time duel – the highlight of every run-off campaign – was a car crash for the far-right candidate while showing him to be smart, calm and well-prepared for the job of president .

Aggressive from the start, a pissed off Le Pen got the facts wrong when going on the attack. She struggled to explain her flagship policy – since abandoned – of bringing back the franc while keeping, somehow, the euro. She lost her temper, and with it all hope of winning. It was, she later confessed, her “biggest failure” but also a “kick in the back”.

Wednesday night’s rematch before Sunday’s second round vote was always going to be different. Le Pen has spent the past five years softening his image, refining his policies and learning his records. Macron no longer needed to present his credentials but to defend his performance in power.

For two hours and 45 minutes of a sometimes tense, sometimes soporific verbal fight, no knockout blow was delivered and no obvious winner emerged.

“We are much more disciplined than five years ago,” Macron said at one point. “Yes, it’s true, you see we’re actually getting older,” Le Pen replied.

Ironically, given his incumbent status, it was Macron who was the most aggressive in his attempts to poke holes in his rival’s agenda. A master of detail, he interrupted her several times, then sat back down with his arms crossed, despite the risk of sounding condescending.

Several times he put Le Pen on the defensive, for example over his proposals for tax cuts or plans to transform the EU into a more loosely integrated union of nation states. But on this occasion, she was better prepared. Although according to an ELABE snap poll for BFM TV, 59% of viewers found Macron more convincing, the far-right leader never lost her temper or even her composure. Many in his party will consider this an achievement.

Aware of her excessive aggressiveness in 2017, she was more restrained and moderate in her language, devoting a lot of time to explaining France’s problems and its policies rather than disparaging her opponent. At one point, she apologized for not using more “catastrophic” terms to describe the president’s law and order record. She has done a better job than her opponent of echoing the concerns of ordinary people, having focused her campaign on the cost of living crisis.

It was Macron who dealt the hardest blows. He accused Le Pen of being “dependent” on Vladimir Putin because of the loan his party took out from a Russian bank in 2014. “You speak with your banker when you speak. [with] the Russians,” he said.

He warned that Le Pen’s proposal to ban the wearing of the Muslim headscarf would lead to a “civil war” in France. “It makes no sense, it is not feasible. What you are proposing is a betrayal of the republic.

Even with these attacks, Macron has failed to “re-toxify” an opponent who has transformed her tough image but is still in the running to become France’s first far-right leader since World War II.

One of the president’s allies said before the debate that the aim was not to vilify Le Pen but to undermine his credibility. Since the first round on April 10, Macron’s lead over his opponent for Sunday’s second round has grown as his rival’s candidacy comes under closer scrutiny. The debate will have helped Macron in that effort, but the race still seems uncomfortably close.