The independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and the the far-right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen traded venomous personal insults and clashed over how to fix the sluggish French economy and fight terrorism in a bruising live TV presidential debate days before the final presidential vote this weekend.
In the prolonged two-and-a-half-hour slanging match that contained more invective than any other debate in French presidential history, Macron branded 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 in 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.”
Just after Le Pen had left the TV studios accusing Macron of “lies and aggression”, snap polling by Elabe for BFM television found a clear majority of French people felt he had been the most convincing and won the match. Polls this week done before the TV debate showed Macron leading by 60% to 40% before the final-round vote on Sunday.
In a debate that was heavier on insults than policy detail, viewers lost count of the times Macron mocked Le Pen’s constant recourse to her notes and slammed her for was “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,” accusing her 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 pro-EU Macron who wants closer cooperation, exchanged more insults.
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 attacked her on her unclear plans to leave the euro currency.
“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.”
The stage-managed live TV sparring-match is a staple of French election campaigns with a format unchanged for 40 years in which the candidates faced each other across a table for the cameras with no studio audience.
But the bad-tempered exchange in which Macron and Le Pen constantly traded insults with each other rather than expound 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, 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-system and reinventing 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 out of fear of “normalising hate and intolerance”.
Le Pen has tried to gain a grassroots presence across France and soften her party’s image on the surface, 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 first few minutes, 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” of the system that she was criticising, manipulating voters’ woes. “What class!” she interjected witheringly.
It was the first time that two candidates that are such total opposites to each other have faced off in a presidential debate.
Le Pen wants a closed-borders France and to prioritise French people jobs, housing and benefits for French people over foreigners, send back illegal immigrants, turn away from the European Union and abandon free-trade deals. She sees solving unemployment by blocking immigration and taxing companies who hire any 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 of the eurozone with a common budget.