France’s main presidential candidates rounded on the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the first televised debate on Monday night, with the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron accusing her of lying and seeking to divide the country.
The three-and-a-half-hour live debate between the top five candidates saw Le Pen and Macron repeatedly exchange verbal blows. At the start of the debate, Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister who has never run for election before, seemed subdued, perhaps more used to making speeches alone on stage than debating rivals. But when Le Pen accused him of being in favour of the burkini, a full-body swimsuit worn by Muslim women that created weeks of controversy in France last summer when some mayors banned it from beaches, Macron exploded.
“You are lying by twisting the truth,” he said, accusing her of “dividing” society. Later, she attacked Macron for being a former investment banker, then again on foreign policy, shouting over him: “What you’re saying means nothing. We don’t understand any of it.” Polls currently show Le Pen and Macron looking likely to make it through to the second, final round, but the race remains open and impossible to predict.
Le Pen’s main challenge was to appear credible on economic policy, but she stressed security and immigration issues. “I want to put an end to immigration – that’s clear,” she announced, before talking about a rise of Islamic fundamentalism in France and saying the security situation in France was “explosive”.
The rightwing François Fillon has in recent weeks gone from favourite to fighting to stay in the race after a formal judicial investigation was launched into claims that he paid his wife and children vast taxpayer-funded salaries for alleged “fake jobs” as parliamentary assistants. Le Pen’s Front National is also under investigation over the misuse of European parliament funds to pay party workers. Both have denied wrongdoing, but on Monday they got away without anyone going into detail about the allegations during the debate.
The hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who commentators said had won the sense of humour contest during the debate, said he admired the “prudishness of gazelles” of the other candidates in avoiding detail on the corruption cases that have dominated the campaign.
Fillon, a former prime minister, concluded the debate by saying: “I have some flaws. Who hasn’t? But I know how to run a small town, a region, a government.”
For much of the debate, Fillon stood back, attempting to look reserved and presidential. He didn’t tackle Le Pen on immigration or security, but then he savaged her plans to leave the euro. “You want to drag the country into social and economic chaos,” he told Le Pen.
“That’s called Project Fear, Mr Fillon. It was used before Brexit,” shot back Le Pen, who has pledged a referendum on France’s EU membership.
Macron, staunchly pro-Europe, noted that “all those who said Brexit will be wonderful … ran away and hid”.
The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, took issue with Le Pen’s claim that public schools were racked with violence, calling her remarks “nauseating”. He later accused her of being “addicted to crime stories”.
Meanwhile, the Socialist interior minister Bruno Le Roux was summoned to meet the prime minister early on Tuesday morning after allegations surfaced that, as an MP, he had employed his two daughters as parliamentary assistants several times during their school holidays. Since the Fillon allegations, the hiring of family members at taxpayers’ expense has become a hot button issue. It is legal in France for MPs to hire family members as long as they genuinely carry out work.