French presidential election candidates to face off in first TV debate

Kim Willsher in Paris
‘The left can win and indeed must win,’ Benoît Hamon told the Socialist campaign rally. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

France’s leading presidential candidates will take part in the first live debate of the bitterly contested campaign on Monday night.

The confrontation, expected to take up a two and a half hour primetime television slot, will challenge the five first-round frontrunners to outline their programmes on social, economic and international issues.

Those taking part, in order of current polling popularity, will be Marine Le Pen, of the far-right Front National, Emmanuel Macron, of the centrist En Marche movement, François Fillon of the opposition right Les Républicains, Benoît Hamon, the official candidate for the Socialist party (PS), and hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France).

Six other candidates officially accepted by the French constitutional council have not been invited but are expected to join a second debate nearer to the first-round vote at the end of April.

Two candidates will go through to a second-round vote a fortnight later. The presidential election will be followed shortly afterwards by legislative elections.

On Sunday, Hamon rose to the challenge of giving his presidential campaign the kiss of life with a rousing appeal to thousands of supporters.

At a packed Paris arena more accustomed to hosting entertainment’s great and good, he was given the reception normally reserved for pop stars.

The mostly young audience waved flags, cheered and leapt to its feet to whistle, cheer and chant: “Benoît, president.”

Hamon’s campaign team had hoped the event would attract at least 15,000 people in a show of strength, after a march organised by Mélenchon on Saturday reportedly drew more than 100,000.

In the end, the 20,000-capacity stadium was full and up to several thousand people watched the 90-minute address on a television screen outside.

Hamon, whose support stands at about 13.5% in the opinion polls, has some way to go to catch up with the frontrunners – Le Pen on 26.5%, Macron on 26% and Fillon on 18%.

Hamon is also struggling with a damaging split of the leftwing vote between him and Mélenchon, who is on 10.5%.

Despite several high-profile defections from his ranks in recent weeks, a number of Socialist party heavyweights were present, including the former ministers Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Christiane Taubira, Vincent Peillon and the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo.

“This election is a turning point for France. This election is like no other,” Hamon declared.

“Your presence here is a message … everything begins today. Everything begins with you. It’s not just the first day that will take us to power, but the first day that will begin the change in France.

“My determination is total because I know for whom I fight. Some have left the boat already after the first breezes, I will hold firm in the tempest.

“France is in a democratic burnout … the left can win and indeed must win.” He said it was not about the “destiny of a man … but the destiny of a country”.

Hamon, 49, began by asking those present at the AccorHotels arena at Bercy in east Paris to stand for a minute’s silence for the victims of terrorism, including the Jewish children, their father and three soldiers killed by the Islamic militant Mohamed Merah five years ago.

Hamon went on to outline his anti-austerity, pro-Europe programme that includes as a key but controversial measure the introduction of a minimum universal income.

“Universal income was a pillar of the programme of the French resistance,” he said. “Today we are taking up that combat, we are carrying that flame. And we are not ashamed. We are proud of it.”

He also attacked the oft-repeated claim that his party’s supporters should vote for Macron to block what he called “the xenophobic Front National dynasty”. Such tactical voting was “dangerous for democracy”, he said.

Attacking his rivals Le Pen and Fillon, who have been mired in scandal, and the “parties of money who have their hands on this election”, Hamon said he would publish a list of those funding his campaign “because you have the right to know who is financing who”.

His speech covered globalisation, finance, capitalism, ecology, poverty and human rights among many other themes, including the “recognition of Palestine alongside Israel”, foreign development aid, discrimination, racism and sexism.

“I will be a feminist president,” he promised. “I will do everything I can so the inequalities, stereotypes, violence will be for the future generations a strange aberration.”

He described Brexit, Donald Trump and Le Pen as the appeal of nihilism.



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