French PM, far-right chief cross swords in raucous election debate

France's National Rally (RN) party chief Jordan Bardella says the far-right are "ready" to govern (Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT)
France's National Rally (RN) party chief Jordan Bardella says the far-right are "ready" to govern (Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT)

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and the chief of the main far-right party Jordan Bardella clashed in an ill-tempered debate Tuesday that exposed fierce tensions less than a week ahead of the most polarising election in decades.

Attal, Bardella and hard-left MP Manuel Bompard, representing the left-wing coalition, exchanged accusations in a sometimes bruising live TV encounter where discussion of issues was often drowned by a cacophony of voices.

Bardella's National Rally (RN) still has a clear lead in opinion polls ahead of Sunday's first round of voting in the parliamentary elections, followed by the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP) coalition with President Emmanuel Macron's centrist alliance lagging in third.

At just 28, Bardella could become the first far-right prime minister in France's modern history after the second round on July 7, although he has said he will only take the job if the RN wins an absolute majority in parliament.

Bardella vowed that "if the French give me their confidence I will be the prime minister of purchasing power", pledging cuts to VAT and tax breaks for the under 30s.

"I am prime minister. The difference with me is that I do not want to lie to the French," retorted Attal.

"Jordan Bardella says every time that he will reduce VAT as if by magic but without saying how he will finance it," he added.

Bompard meanwhile told the premier "you are badly placed to give lessons on the economy, given your record."

- 'Be humble' -

Attal, 35, portrayed himself as safe pair of hands with experience of the realities of power, repeatedly asking Bardella "how will you finance it?" and saying "I will remain serious".

"Excuse me Mr Teacher!" Bardella bristled at one point, while adding that "if you were credible we would not be here at all" -- a reference to Macron's dissolution of parliament following his party's third place in European elections.

"Mr Attal be humble tonight, please," Bardella said. "Stop your cinema please. You are not at the level of your office."

Attal also rounded on Bardella for his controversial proposal to ban French dual nationals from sensitive strategic posts.

"The message that you send is dual nationals are half nationals," he said.

The RN leader said for his part he would "drastically reduce migratory flows" if he becomes prime minister.

"There are millions of French who do not recognise the France that they grew up in," he said.

Referring to the origins of Bardella, who is himself of Italian and also Algerian ancestry, Bompard said: "When your personal ancestors arrived in France, your political ancestors said exactly the same thing. I find that dramatic."

- 'Hard to understand' -

Regardless of the result, Macron has vowed to stay on as president until the end of his second term in 2027.

He has been criticised from all sides for his decision to call the snap election after his party received a drubbing in the European election earlier this month.

A warning issued by Macron Monday that the programmes of the two "extremes" on left and right could spark a "civil war" also sparked disquiet even within his own ranks.

Parliament speaker Yael Braun-Pivet, a senior member of the ruling Renaissance party, acknowledged that the French "have found it hard to understand" the dissolution. Former premier Edouard Philippe, who leads an allied centrist party, said simply that Macron had "killed the presidential majority".

An Ifop poll has the RN on 36 percent support, the left-wing NFP on 29.5 percent and Macron's camp on 20.5 percent, leading the unpopular president's allies to beg him to step back from the campaign.

Bardella said France would have a new government after the elections and now faced the "historic choice" of whether it would be from the left or far-right.

Powerful Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told BFMTV he wanted to leave the government after the election, sit as an MP and "build a new project".

"We are at the end of the cycle, we need to build another," he said.

Meanwhile, Bardella and Attal had both requested that the left-wing slot in Tuesday's debate be taken by France Unbowed founder Jean-Luc Melenchon rather than Bompard.

A former presidential candidate, Melenchon is the most recognisable but also the most divisive figure on the left due to his radical positions.

Melenchon himself has refused to rule himself out of the running, saying his name "opens doors in working-class neighbourhoods" but many on the left hope an alternative figure will emerge.