Emmanuel Macron appeared to have kept his frontrunner status against Marine Le Pen after a bruising live TV presidential debate days before the final vote this weekend in which the centrist and far-right candidates traded venomous personal insults and clashed over how to fix the sluggish French economy and fight terrorism.
In the prolonged two-and-a-half-hour slanging match that featured more invective than any other debate in French presidential history, Macron branded Front National candidate Le Pen an ill-informed, corrupt, dangerously nationalistic and “hate-filled” liar who “fed off France’s misery” and would bring “civil war” to France.
She in turn called the former economy minister an arrogant, spoilt, cold-eyed, “smirking banker” who was colluding with Islamists, complacent on terrorism and intent on “butchering France” in favour of “big economic interests”.
Both accused the other of taking French people for imbeciles. At one point, after a long attack saying Le Pen was lying to the French public, Macron snapped: “I’m sorry, Madame Le Pen; France deserves better than you.” More than 15 million people watched the debate.
Snap polling by Elabe for BFM television just after Le Pen had left the TV studios, accusing Macron of “lies and aggression”, found that a clear majority felt the centrist candidate had been the most convincing. Viewing figures said 16 .5 million people watched the debate.
French media on Thursday declared Macron the winner of a “dirty debate”. Le Pen was criticised for her “permanent aggression” and even normally sympathetic publications found her “unconvincing”.
Libération accused Le Pen of “multiplying attacks and provocations … and thus avoiding any serious debate” while Ruth Elkrief, political editor for BFMTV declared it “not worthy of a presidential election campaign”.
In a debate heavier on insults than policy detail, viewers lost count of the times Macron mocked Le Pen’s recourse to her notes and slammed her for “talking nonsense”. She snapped back that he was “arrogant”, babyish and craven to big finance.
On jobs – one of the biggest concerns in a country that has struggled with decades of mass unemployment — Macron told Le Pen: “Your strategy is simply to tell a lot of lies and just to say what isn’t going right in the country.” She said he favoured “uncontrolled globalisation” and would sell off state assets to the highest bidder.
Although Le Pen was under pressure to flesh out her policy proposals, she spent more time attacking Macron and the record of the outgoing Socialist government.
Terrorism was another key issue after a series of deadly attacks killed more than 230 people in France in just over two years. Le Pen accused Macron of an “indulgent attitude” towards Islamic fundamentalism and said he was slack on fighting extremism. He replied he would be “uncompromising” on terrorism – which he called the biggest issue of the next few years in France – and said the state had to look at the social issues behind why so many terrorists who attacked France were born and raised in France. Le Pen, who this week said “globalisation and Islamism” were the main threats to France, retorted that Macron was lax on Islamism and disregarded French secularism.
Le Pen restated her plan to ban religious symbols from all public places, which would include the Muslim headscarf. Macron warned that her proposals would divide France and lead to “a civil war” and “that’s what terrorists want”. He said: “The terrorists want there to be divisions between us” and accusing his rival of “hate-filled speech”.
On the European Union, the candidates could not have been further apart. Le Pen, who wants to hold a referendum on France leaving the EU, and Macron, who wants closer cooperation, traded more insults on the subject. Le Pen said Macron as president would allow France to be crushed by its economically powerful neighbour Germany and would “lie prostrate” before the powers of Berlin.
“France will be led by a woman, either me or Mrs Merkel,” Le Pen laughed, referring to the German chancellor. He meanwhile attacked her over her muddled stance on the euro. “The euro is the currency of bankers. It’s not the people’s currency,” Le Pen snapped back. Macron responded: “The euro is important. It’s not just a policy.”
Polls this week conducted before the TV debate showed Macron leading by 60% to 40% before the final-round vote on Sunday.
The stage-managed live TV sparring-match is a staple of French election campaigns. The format, in which the candidates face each other across a table for the cameras with no studio audience, has not changed for 40 years. But this bad-tempered exchange, which saw Macron and Le Pen repeatedly exchange insults with rather than expounding on policy, represented a political first.
After France’s two main parties, who had shared power for decades, were knocked out in the first-round vote last month amid anti-establishment anger, the two candidates who faced each other across the table were relative political novices.
Macron is a former economy minister has never run for election before, and set up his “neither right nor left” movement En Marche! (On the Move) a year ago. Le Pen, who took over the far-right Front National from her father six years ago, has never held a ministerial or French parliament post. Both claimed to be anti-establishment candidates who aimed to reinvent French politics.
The very fact that Le Pen appeared in the debate was considered a major step in normalising her party. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the final, the right-wing Jacques Chirac refused to debate him on TV for fear of “normalising hate and intolerance”.
Le Pen has tried to gain a grassroots presence across France and soften her party’s image, attempting to shake off the old jackbooted image of anti-semitism and racism under her Holocaust-denying father, but Macron in rallies has continually described her party as the “party of hatred”.
From the opening exchanges, the debate was a heated row and it rarely calmed down. Le Pen immediately called Macron a brutal and shameless “darling of the system” who was being controlled by the outgoing president François Hollande. Macron told her, “You’re not exactly known for your finesse”, while slamming her as “heir” to her father’s name and 45-year-old party.
He said she lacked any knowledge of facts and was “feeding off” French people’s unhappiness. He said she was a “parasite” on the system that she was criticising, manipulating voters’ woes. “What class!” she interjected witheringly.
Le Pen wants a France with closed borders and to prioritise French people over foreigners for jobs, housing and benefits, to send illegal immigrants home, to turn away from the European Union and to abandon free-trade deals. She hopes to solve unemployment by blocking immigration and taxing companies who hire foreigners.
Macron wants to increase European Union cooperation and says France cannot escape the globalised world. He wants to loosen strict labour regulations and reform the eurozone with a common budget.