Presidential rivals clash in tempestuous final French TV debate

French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party, Marine Le Pen (L), and French presidential election candidate for the 'En Marche!' (Onwards!) political movement, Emmanuel Macron (R), sit on opposite sides prior to the start of a live brodcast face-to-face televised debate in television studios of French public national television channel France 2, and French private channel TF1 in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, France, on 03 May 2017 as part of the second round election campaign. [Eric Feferberg / EPA]

French centrist Emmanuel Macron and his far-right presidential rival Marine Le Pen clashed over terrorism, the economy and Europe Wednesday (3 May) in a bad-tempered TV debate that laid bare their profoundly different visions for the country.

The two went into the debate with opinion polls showing Macron, 39, with a strong lead of 20 percentage points over the National Front’s Le Pen, 48, in what is widely seen as France’s most important election in decades.

The duel ahead of this Sunday’s election (7 May) was billed as a confrontation between Macron’s call for openness and pro-market reforms and Le Pen’s France-first nationalism.

For Le Pen, the two-and-a-half hour debate, watched by millions, was a last major chance to persuade voters of the merits of her programme which includes cracking down on illegal immigration, ditching the euro single currency and holding a referendum on EU membership.

However, 63% of viewers found Macron more convincing than Le Pen in the debate, according to a snap opinion poll by Elabe for BFMTV, reinforcing his status as the favourite to win the Elysee on Sunday.

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Angry exchanges

In angry exchanges, Le Pen played up Macron’s background as a former investment banker and economy minister, painting him as heir to the outgoing unpopular Socialist government and as the “candidate of globalisation gone wild.”

He savaged her flagship policy of abandoning the euro, calling it a fatal plan that would unleash a currency war, and he accused her of failing to offer solutions to France’s economic problems such as chronic unemployment.

The barbs at times were personal. Macron called Le Pen a “parasite” and a liar, and Le Pen labelled him a “smirking banker” and – in a reference to his youthful looks – said: “You are young on the outside, but old on the inside”.

In a final put-down, when Le Pen attempted to interrupt his summing-up, Macron told Le Pen: “You stay on TV. I want to be president of the country.”

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Clashes on terrorism

The sharpest exchange was over national security, a sensitive issue in a country where more than 230 people have been killed by Islamist militants since 2015.

Le Pen accused Macron of being complacent in confronting Islamist fundamentalism. “You have no plan (on security) but you are indulgent with Islamist fundamentalism,” she said.

Macron retorted that terrorism would be his priority if he is elected and accused Le Pen of offering false solutions.

“I will lead a fight against Islamist terrorism at every level. But what they are wanting, the trap they are holding out for us, is the one that you offer – civil war,” he said.

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Two visions for Europe

On Europe, Le Pen accused Macron of being “submissive” towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying: “France will be led by a woman, either me or Mrs Merkel.”

She called the euro, shared by 19 countries in the European Union and blamed by some in France for a rise in prices, as “the currency of bankers, it’s not the people’s currency.”

But Macron was in combative form throughout, repeatedly portraying Le Pen’s proposals as simplistic, defeatist or dangerous.  He attacked her flagship policy of scrapping the euro to return to the franc, pressing Le Pen on how this would work in practice and accusing her of “fiddling” and “a crass lack of preparation” on the issue.

The euro policy “was the big nonsense of Marine Le Pen’s programme,” he said midway through the 140-minute debate. Leaving the euro would be a “a fatal plan and a dangerous plan”, Macron said. “What you propose is currency war.”

Le Pen responded by accusing Macron of launching “project fear” over her plans, borrowing a term used in Britain’s referendum debate on whether to leave the European Union.

Le Pen has appeared to flip-flop on her euro policy in recent days. Around three-quarters of French people oppose abandoning the euro and analysts say the policy could cost her support among people fearful that their savings could lose value.

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Normalisation of far-right

The duel marked a new step into the mainstream for Le Pen, whose party was once considered by France’s political establishment to be an extremist fringe that should be boycotted.

When her father Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the final round of the presidential election in 2002, his conservative opponent Jacques Chirac refused to debate with him out of fear of “normalising hate and intolerance”.

In the first round of the election on 23 April, Marine Le Pen finished second scoring 21.3% after softening the National Front’s image over the past six years – but without fully removing doubt about the party’s core beliefs.

She sees her rise as the consequence of growing right-wing nationalism and a backlash against globalisation seen in the election of Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

“I am the candidate of the people of France such as we love it, of the nation that protects jobs, security, our borders,” she said in her opening comments.

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Abstention factor

The debate was unlikely to have swayed any committed supporters of either candidate, but it could influence the roughly 18% of undecided voters and others who were planning to abstain.

Many supporters of Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came fourth in the first round, have said they will not vote on Sunday, comparing the final round as a choice between “the plague and cholera”.

President Hollande and members of the government have led warnings about the risk of a Le Pen presidency. “We are in a zone of absolute danger,” warned Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem before the debate. “Do not play Russian roulette with our democracy.”

Hollande told reporters that “we shouldn’t think the result is a foregone conclusion” and urged Macron, his former adviser and economy minister, to make clear his different vision of France in Europe and the world.

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Macron seen building parliamentary majority

Assuming he wins, one of Macron’s immediate tasks will be to build a parliamentary majority in follow-up elections in June to push through his programme.

Macron quit the government last August to concentrate on his new centrist political movement En Marche, which has drawn 250,000 members in 12 months but has no representation in parliament.

A poll for Les Echos by OpinionWay-SLPV Analytics suggested Macron was rising to that challenge, showing his party set to emerge as the largest single party in the lower house.

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