© Reuters. A photo shows screens showing a debate on the French presidential election between French President Emmanuel Macron, a candidate for his re-election, and the presidential candidate of the French far-right National Rally Marine Le Pen in Saint-Denis, north
By John Irish and Mark John
PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen clashed in front of a live television audience on Wednesday in their only debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.
Televised debates have long featured in French elections and have resulted in exchanges, one-liners and bashings that audiences have remembered for years. Le Pen’s poor showing in a televised debate with Macron in 2017 was seen as a factor in his defeat in the polls at the time.
Here are some of the key takeaways from their meeting, which is expected to last two and a half hours.
CAN I FINISH?
It was a tense and temperamental affair from the start. Le Pen launched into a speech even before the introductory musical theme was over, forcing the host to ask her to start over – which she did, brushing off the incident with a laugh and launching into in a direct attack on Macron’s record on the economy.
Light moderation meant there were lots of interruptions, miffed expressions, impatient body language, and calls, “Can I finish my sentence?”
While local media report that Macron was keen not to be seen as condescending, he called Le Pen’s arguments “incoherent”. At one point, he couldn’t help but suggest that Le Pen was confused about the financial impact of her own spending plans. She chimed in, “Don’t try to lecture me on my own program!”
THIS IS STUPID ECONOMY
This was presented as the biggest concern of the French, but the discussion on purchasing power boiled down to two things: Macron’s cap on energy prices as inflation rose against Le Pen who wanted to remove VAT on 100 common consumer goods.
This set the tone for much of the rest of the evening’s debate on economic issues as Macron dissected each of his economic proposals to show the difficulties Le Pen would have in implementing and funding his manifesto. “Your measures are ineffective and unfair,” he said.
THE RUSSIAN LOAN
One of the most heated exchanges took place on the war in Ukraine and more particularly on Le Pen’s links with Russia. She immediately began her response on Ukraine by expressing her “absolute solidarity” with Ukrainians, a sign that she wanted to sweep away her past ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Le Pen was also conciliatory with Macron on the subject, welcoming his efforts to support Ukraine and stop an escalation.
But Macron went to the jugular: referring to his party’s decision to take out a loan from a Russian bank, he told him “you depend on Mr. Putin”. Le Pen countered by saying she had been unable to secure a loan in France and insisted the transaction in no way compromised her independence. “I am a completely free and independent woman.”
The two’s starkly divergent positions on the European Union quickly became a fault line in the debate, one to which Macron in particular kept referring. Her strongest line was aimed at Le Pen’s claim that she wanted France to keep its place in the EU while reforming the bloc. “It’s a project that dare not speak its name – and that is to leave Europe,” he said. Denying this, Le Pen made a direct appeal to French pride in its food and farming heritage: She said current EU rules impose substandard imports on French plates and unnecessary cruelty in long transport. distance of cattle destined for slaughter from other states.
A staunch supporter of the Paris agreement on climate change, Macron nonetheless disappointed many French environmentalists with his government’s green credentials and decision to double down on nuclear as a way to cut carbon emissions. However, he did not hesitate to qualify Le Pen as “climate-skeptical” about his plans, in particular to get rid of the large French wind farm producing renewable energy.
Le Pen returned with a line that could register with left-leaning voters whom Macron has sought to reach this week with fresh promises of more action on the environment. “I’m not a climate sceptic,” she said. “But you are a climatic hypocrite.”
As the two tired and turned to security, they calmly outlined their ideas, Macron even offering a lighter note on the tone of the evening. “We are much more disciplined than five years ago,” he said. “We’re older,” she replied.
But the jokes ended there as the two argued over the hijab. Le Pen eventually wants to ban the veil in public spaces if elected and says most young women who wear it are required to do so.
Macron accused her of linking the hijab too easily to “Islamism”. He added “with me, there will be no ban on the hijab, kippah or any religious symbol in public. In the suburbs you will create a civil war, I say this in all sincerity”.