Le Pen and Macron clash in crucial debate

Candidates for the 2017 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, of the French National Front party and Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche! or Onwards, pose prior to the start of a debate in La Plaine-Sainte-Denis.

The two contenders for the French presidency are trading insults in a head to head TV debate in a key moment of a long and bitter campaign.

Centrist Emmanuel Macron said his far-right rival Marine Le Pen’s strategy is “to lie”, while she called him a shameless “darling of the system”.

Mr. Macron is well ahead in the polls, although his lead has narrowed.

The aim of both candidates is to win over the estimated 18% of undecided voters.

For the first time, neither candidate is from a mainstream French party.

What have the candidates said?

They clashed early, as the debate began with questions about their views on the economy and France’s 10% unemployment rate.

Mr. Macron said France had failed to tackle unemployment for 30 years, and said his solution would be to give small- and medium-sized companies the opportunities to create more jobs and be more flexible.

Ms Le Pen made it personal, accusing him of failing to turn things around when he had the chance while economy minister under President Hollande.

They sparred over their rival visits to a factory in Amiens, in which Ms Le Pen made an unannounced visit while Mr Macron was there.

The En Marche leader accused the National Front (FN) leader of staying for a “15 minute” photo opportunity while he spent “hours” talking with workers worried about their futures.

Why is the debate so important?

There have been TV debates ahead of the first round but this is the first time the two main candidates have sparred face to face.

And this 160-minute debate is being billed as the moment of truth, on the two biggest TV channels in front of some 20 million French viewers.

All the big campaign themes are being tackled, including security, health policy and the European Union.

For Marine Le Pen it is her big chance to land some blows and make up ground by exposing her 39-year-old rival’s relative inexperience.

Emmanuel Macron, as favourite, arguably has most to lose.

How is the debate working?

This is not like the US presidential debate where the candidates stand behind lecterns. This is a direct confrontation.

The two candidates are sitting at a big desk, Marine Le Pen on the left, Emmanuel Macron on the right. The presidential debate is a tried and tested event in France, going back to 1974.

The two moderators, Nathalie Saint-Cricq and Christophe Jakubyszyn are heavyweight political journalists, but not the big TV presenters France is used to. That is because the candidates objected to the initial choices.

And don’t expect a 1960-style sweaty Richard Nixon moment. The temperature is regulated at 19C to keep the candidates cool.

What to look out for

Marine Le Pen’s campaign is based on a patriotic “Choose France” slogan. According to her, she is the real thing, and her rival is an impostor backed up by the old guard of French politics.

Her supporters leapt on a rumour on Tuesday that Mr. Macron was threatening to walk out of the debate if she started using him as a “punching-ball”. “If Mr. Macron doesn’t feel comfortable he can always ask [President] François Hollande to come and hold his hand, I won’t stand in his way,” she tweeted.

But to convince voters wary of a far-right leader she may project a softer image too, while her opponent will need to show a firm streak.

Emmanuel Macron’s aim is to seek the moral high ground by showing that he has authentic policies while his rival’s ideas are simplistic and dangerous for France.

“I want to go head-to-head, to get to the bottom of the issues, to show that these are false solutions,” he said on Tuesday.

 

Zainab Sa’id