Wednesday, October 5

Macron and Le Pen go head-to-head in French presidential debate | French presidential election 2022

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen went head-to-head in a live televised debate on Wednesday evening that could change the course of the presidential election this weekend.

The much-anticipated two-and-a-half hour exchange, screened on television, radio and online from 9pm local time, began civilly with a smiling Le Pen saying she would be the president of “respect and common sense”.

Le Pen had drawn lots to speak first and opened by addressing the cost of living crisis that polls show is the number one concern for French voters. She spoke of reducing taxes permanently to give French families between €150-200 extra each month per household.

“An absolute priority for the next year will be giving back the French their money,” she said promising to reduce VAT on fuel and energy.

Macron, looking more serious, said his approach to “people’s anger struggling about to make ends meet” was to freeze prices during the cost of living crisis as an emergency measure. “This is more efficient than a drop in VAT,” he added. “And you voted against it.”

“I want something lasting, like leaving the European electricity market, not something temporary,” Le Pen said in response.

The French television station TF1, which is hosting the debate, had hoped to begin with an exchange between the candidates over the international situation, namely Ukraine, but Le Pen had vetoed this as an opening subject.

The first clash came over salaries, when Macron dismissed Le Pen’s suggestion she would increase salaries by 10%.

“The president doesn’t decide salaries, that’s down to employers,” Macron said. “You are trying to make people believe you will increase salaries by 10% and it’s not true.”

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“And you are trying to make people believe you will increase bonuses,” Le Pen hit back.

With everything to win or lose, Macron, 44, had to avoid sounding arrogant and headmasterly and Le Pen, 53, had to appear calm, credible and above all moderate to win over the 40% of floating voters who did not support either in the first round 10 days ago, especially the 7.7 million who voted for the radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The face-off was moderated by two journalists well known to French audiences, and each candidate had equal time to answer questions on a range of subjects and their policies. The debate is a big event in French presidential elections since it was introduced in 1974. Only Jacques Chirac refused to debate his second-round rival, the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, in 2002, saying to do so would legitimize Le Pen’s extreme views.

After a disastrous performance in the 2017 presidential debate, Le Pen was far better prepared this time. She had been advised to play the mother of the nation – advice she failed to take in 2017. Back then, her team suggested she attempt to destabilize Macron, treat him as a “spoilt child”. In the event, Macron destabilized her from the start, telling her that despite her efforts to detoxify her and her party’s image of her she was the “true heiress” of Le Pen Sr and the “French far right”. She stumbled, confused the euro with the ecu, and became aggressive. He told her to “stop being ridiculous”. More than 16 million people were watching. At one point, Le Monde claimed she was losing 30,000 votes a minute and polls afterwards showed she had lost four percentage points.

Five years on, Macron is no longer the political arriviste and was able to carry his arguments with the weight of presidential experience, albeit with mixed results. Le Pen is weak on technical details and is open to criticism for her previous support of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Apart from the program differences, viewers will be watching the behavior of the two candidates.

Before the debate, Jordan Bardella, the acting head of Le Pen’s National Rally party, said the candidate was “concentrating and ready”. He added: “Our state of mind is that today we are ready … and that’s the message we will deliver this evening to the French.”

The government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said: “The president of the Republic is approaching this debate calmly and with great interest because it is an important democratic moment, because it is an important moment of clarification that will allow us to go into the details of the projects .”

Among the thorny issues are Le Pen’s plans to ban the Islamic headscarf in public places, exempt the under-30s from income tax and hold a referendum to bypass the constitution to clamp down on immigration and introduce nationalist French-first policies for jobs, benefits and healthcare.

Le Pen is expected to pull Macron up on some of his more unfortunate public comments, including that he wanted to “piss off the non-vaccinated”, or that he “could cross the road” and find an unemployed person a job.

Much of the debate is expected to be technical. The question of pensions and the official retirement age is an extremely complicated issue that will be difficult to clarify in a television clash.

Europe is also expected to be a hot topic, with Macron wanting a stronger, more powerful union and Le Pen wishing to ignore the EU and create an alliance of nations within the bloc.

The latest opinion poll from Ipsos suggests Macron has a 12 point lead over Le Pen for the second-round vote, with him winning with 56% and her on 44%, with a 1.1% margin of error. However, 13% of those voters did not say for whom they would vote. Of those who said they would abstain or vote blank, 43% said they may change their mind on the day.

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