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What to expect from France’s five-way live TV presidential debate

Joel Saget, AFP | François Fillon, Benoît Hamon, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron et Jean-Luc Mélenchon will face-off in the campaign’s first presidential debate.

FRANCE 24 takes a look at the five leading candidates for France’s presidential elections as they prepare for their first TV debate. The two and half hour primetime event could be a game changer in this bitterly fought campaign.


Emmanuel Macron: The target

Objective: Deflecting any punches without losing his position as favourite

The former economy minister is riding high in the opinion polls, with the latest Odoxa poll showing him just ahead in the first-round [there are two rounds of voting in French presidential elections] at 26.5 percent, with far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen at 26 percent. The polls indicate that he would then easily win by 64 percent to Le Pen’s 36 percent in the run-off.

Profile: Emmanuel Macron
Profile: Emmanuel Macron

His front-runner position makes him the obvious target for all the other four candidates. Macron’s centrist platform means that his programme will be attacked by the left for being too economically liberal, and from the right for being identical to President François Hollande’s failed policies.

The big unknown is Macron’s capacity to handle attacks from his opponents. The 39 year-old former banker has never taken part in an electoral campaign and has no experience in the debate format. He often calls for “bienveillance” (goodwill) at his rallies, but his opponents are not likely to hold back.

Marine Le Pen: Self-assured

Objective: Widen her appeal beyond her power base

The far-right leader has conducted her campaign virtually unchallenged by the other candidates, who consider her presence in the May 7 run-off as a given fact. Opinion polls show that Le Pen benefits from a loyal grassroots following – standing at about a third of the electorate – but that she is still widely distrusted by the vast majority of French voters.

Le Pen is aware that she will have to overcome this widespread suspicion to stand a chance of winning the run-off. Capitalising on French fears about globalisation and Islamic extremists, she’s likely to depict herself as a champion of law and order and opposed to the pro-business Macron.

The National Front leader released last month an official video that emphasises her character and her background studying law, thereby attempting to present herself as a reassuring figure. It’s in her interest to keep this soothing image in tonight’s debate to widen her appeal beyond the party’s loyal followers.

François Fillon: The survivor

Objective: Shift focus from fake job scandal to his radical economic platform

François Fillon defeated his right wing rivals in the primary debate in November thanks to his image of integrity and his pledge to introduce radical new economic policies, including drastic spending cuts. However, four months later, the former premier is under formal investigation for the misuse of public funds to give his wife a fake job, the so-called the “PenelopeGate” scandal.

The one-time frontrunner is now expected to crash out in the first round. The right-wing leader survived his own party’s attempt to replace him by adopting an anti-elite tone, slamming magistrates, journalists, and party apparatchiks and labelling it a “political assassination”.

Fillon will try to revive his faltering presidential campaign by shifting the focus from the shocking monetary arrangements with his wife to the radical economic platform he says represent France’s only hope for real change.

Benoît Hamon: The underdog

Objective: Anti-big business

Just like his right-wing counterpart, Benoît Hamon won the Socialist primary in January after a strong performance in the two TV debates. But the former education minister has since struggled to build momentum, with a growing number of Socialist officials jumping ship to support Macron’s centrist platform.

Hamon attempted to turn around his flagging campaign on Sunday with a rousing speech in front of 20,000 supporters in Paris. The Socialist candidate unveiled his latest line of attack against what he called the “money party” [meaning, big business], referring to Macron who is a former Rothschild banker, as well as Fillon and Le Pen, who are both under investigation for misuse of public funds.

Standing at only 13 percent in the latest opinion poll, Hamon has nothing to lose and is expected to promote his bold left-wing mandate to differentiate himself from the other candidates.

Jean-Luc Melenchon: El Commandante

Objective: A radical left wing through constitutional changes

Left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon drew around 100,000 people in Paris on Saturday in a show of force aimed at scrapping his view that France has a presidential monarchy [the top job in France is one of the most powerful presidents in the world]. After weeks of being neck-and-neck with Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon in the opinion polls, Melenchon hopes to galvanise support in tonight’s televised debate.
Melenchon is likely to depict himself as the candidate of the people, as opposed to candidates who were nominated by their political groups.

He has so far refrained from a full-frontal attack on Hamon but that could change tonight as both politicians fight for fourth place in the presidential race – and the future leadership of the Left in the country. They could especially clash over the EU as Melenchon’s platform insists on French sovereignty at the expense of European institutions.

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