French presidential debate proves a marathon of egalité in action

Kim Willsher in Paris
Ten of France’s 11 presidential candidates line up before Tuesday night’s live TV debate. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AP

It was long – four hours of live prime-time television. It was historic – never before had 11 French presidential candidates assembled for a political debate. It was occasionally chaotic, ill-tempered, and rambling, but on the whole civilised and restrained.

Most of all, France’s second presidential debate was an example of democracy in action.

The five main candidates: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, along with François Fillon, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon, were joined by six lesser-known rivals.

Though none of the also-rans have a hope of challenging the frontrunners, the rule of Tuesday evening’s debate was egalité in its most basic form: each candidate, no matter what their standing in the opinion polls, was to be given exactly the same amount of time – 18 minutes – to express their views.

The result was a range of ideas and opinions from communist to nationalist, protectionist and conservative, plus everything in between.

The majority of the smaller candidates proved either virulently anti-Europe or equally fiercely anti-capitalist.

The favourite, Macron, was cautious and seemingly anxious not to put a foot wrong. However, he clashed with Le Pen over her proposal to scrap the euro and return to the franc. “What you are proposing, Madame Le Pen, is a reduction in French people’s purchasing power because for savers and for workers, withdrawing from the euro will be a reduction in spending power.”

Nathalie Arthaud of the Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle) party said it hardly mattered to the badly paid what currency they earned.

Macron also accused Le Pen of seeking to start an “economic war” with France’s neighbours and said the sort of nationalism she espoused had torn Europe apart and filled the cemeteries near his hometown of Amiens in northern France.

When Le Pen accused him of parroting “old classics” of half a century ago, Macron hit back at her father, the founder of her far-right Front National (FN) party, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“You’re repeating the lies we’ve heard for 40 years and that we heard from your father’s mouth,” Macron said.

Le Pen also clashed with other rivals. Opening the debate, she declared: “I consider that in this election our civilisation is at stake.”

Challenged about accusations that she misused European parliament funds to pay for FN party staff, Le Pen claimed she was being “politically persecuted”.

The claim was jumped on by the Socialist party candidate, Hamon, who said it was ironic to see her “playing the victim when you spend your time victimising Muslims and immigrants”.

Fillon, who is under formal investigation on fraud charges surrounding hundreds of thousands of euros paid to his wife and children for allegedly fake jobs, was also attacked.

Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist party accused Fillon of telling the public they had to tighten their belts while at the same time “stealing from public funds”.

When Poutou repeated the claim, Fillon appeared to mutter a threat to take legal action against him. Fillon insisted he had not been convicted of any crime but had been judged without trial by journalists.

“I’m not intimidated … I’m still here, as you can see,” he said, adding that the French would “make their own judgment” in the election.

With 11 candidates vying to have their say, the two moderators occasionally struggled to keep order.

Mélenchon was found the most convincing performer by French viewers of the debate, a snap poll showed. The poll by Elabe for BFM TV said Mélenchon had managed to convince 25% of those who had watched. Macron was rated as second most convincing, on 21%. Le Pen (11%) came in fourth behind Fillon (15%).

However, the same poll rated Macron’s programme as the best of the 11, with the support of 23% of viewers, followed by Mélenchon (22%) and Fillon (18%).

With just 19 days to go to the first-round election on 23 April, opinion polls before the debate have suggested Macron and Le Pen will go through to the second round a fortnight later.

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