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Le Pen, Macron go head-to-head in first French presidential TV debate

Patrick Kovarik, AFP | François Fillon, Benoît Hamon, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the debate stage Monday night.

Over three-and-a-half hours of fast-paced debate on Monday evening, France’s five leading presidential candidates laid down the gauntlet for the first face-to-face showdown of this roller coaster campaign.


With the candidates arrayed in a gladiator-style arena setting, France’s first-ever candidates’ debate held before the first round of a presidential election was an eminently watchable spectacle with sweeping scope. Candidates clashed heartily over education, security, secularism, campaign financing and France’s place in Europe while broaching a range of social, economic and -- in a segment apparently truncated after the debate ran well past midnight Paris time -- international issues.

But in an election that has been exceptionally unpredictable to date, Monday night’s unprecedented contest may bring something this campaign has lacked: stability.

Frontrunners Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist neophyte, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right political veteran, dominated the proceedings, while the Socialist and conservative candidates punching below their political parties’ traditional electoral weight in the polls are unlikely to have inspired the bounce they desperately needed from their performances.

Macron, a onetime investment banker and former economy minister in François Hollande’s Socialist government, came into the debate with the most to lose. He also had the most to prove, with only 49 percent of his backers in an IFOP poll before the debate saying they were certain not to change their minds about their vote. The surprise frontrunner in this contest, tipped in some recent polls to win April 23’s first round, is currently forecast to beat ostensible fellow finalist Le Pen by some margin to win the presidency on May 7.

Every candidate in the ring had a reason to focus his or her ire on Macron: the National Front’s Le Pen in preview of their final duel; the embattled conservative François Fillon because Macron has leapfrogged him in the polls and stands as the ex-prime minister’s obstacle to reaching the run-off; Benoît Hamon because his Socialist Party is bleeding support to Macron’s upstart bid; far-leftist anti-capitalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon for the easy target an ex-banker represents.

But a fresh poll released by the Elabe firm immediately after the debate showed viewers saw Macron as having won the contest. Twenty-nine percent of voters said Macron was the most convincing candidate, well ahead of the rest of the field. Mélenchon scored 20 percent on the same question, Fillon and Le Pen tied for third with 19 percent, and Hamon came last at 11 percent. Macron was also the candidate who tallied the most Google searches during the debate, followed by Mélenchon.

From the start and throughout the evening, Macron and Hamon on the one hand and Le Pen and Fillon on the other described two versions of France in stark contrast. Macron’s opening remarks touted his “confidence in the country, in its energy” and a “platform bearing hope” while Le Pen’s introduction painted an altogether darker picture.

“I want to be the president of the French republic, but really. I don’t aspire to administer what has become a region, a vague region of the European Union. I don’t want to be Mrs. Merkel’s vice-chancellor. I don’t want to be the sales rep for this or that multinational corporation,” she said during a long, combative introduction.

She spoke of the “explosion of insecurity, of violence, of burglaries, on the entire French territory, including in the most remote villages [which] is something that is dramatic,” singling out Macron after he had called for “calm” and “proportionate discourse” on security. He had accused Fillon of wanting to “sow fear” for the hardline conservative’s statement earlier in the campaign that France was in a state of “quasi civil war”.

Fillon: 'France has failed the fight against the Islamic state Group'

But Macron largely held his ground against the truculent Le Pen, reacting forcefully when she accused him of approving of the body-covering swimwear known as the burkini. “I don’t need a ventriloquist,” he replied. “When I have something to say, I say it clearly.” He struck back, accusing Le Pen of using Islam to divide the country. Le Pen wants visible religious symbols, including Muslim veils, banned in public. “The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocation is to divide society.”

Later, while the Europhile Macron was discussing foreign policy, declaring his desire for France’s independence within the European project and not outside of it, as Le Pen demands, she openly mocked him.

“You have a crazy talent. You manage to speak for seven minutes; I am incapable of summarizing your thoughts. You’ve said nothing. It’s completely empty,” she said, even turning around to the invited guests behind her and telling them, “It’s an art, huh?”

Les Républicains candidate Fillon and the Socialist Hamon were both surprise winners of the conservative and left-wing primaries, respectively, not least on the back of strong performances in their televised debates after each had been forecast to finish third.

Hamon on universal minimum income

Fillon appeared to gamble that his strategy in those primary debates – staying above the fray while others clashed energetically – would work again on Monday night. But the former prime minister’s image back in November – the subdued statesman, beyond reproach, running as a paragon of probity and austerity – seems a world away now, a week after he was placed under formal investigation for allegedly embezzling public funds with fake jobs for his wife and children.

Fillon’s opening and closing remarks hung on his contention that he is the only candidate that could put together a coherent majority with which to govern after June legislative elections. The argument sounded similar to the one he put forward to convince his party to let him stay in the race: There is no Plan B. Not quite the stuff that sparks voters’ imaginations. Dismissing his alleged indiscretions with little ceremony, Fillon said, “I’ve made some mistakes; I have some flaws. Who doesn’t? But I have experience.”

Hamon, meanwhile, was plainly overshadowed by the showman on his political left. Mélenchon, the 65-year-old La France Insoumise candidate running for president for a second time after 2012, brought conviction and moments of levity to the debate, while clashing more convincingly with Le Pen than the more affable but less experienced 49-year-old Hamon.

In an IFOP-Fiducial poll released shortly before Monday night’s debate, Le Pen topped voter intentions for the first round with 27 percent of those surveyed. Macron was close behind with 26 percent, while Fillon stood at 18 percent. Hamon lagged behind at 12.5 percent, with Mélenchon only a point behind him. The poll also showed 37 percent saying they could still change their minds about their vote before election day.

Monday’s debate was the only five-candidate contest in this race. Two more debates, on April 4 and 20, are expected to include all 11 candidates on the ballot for the first round vote, with this contest’s punchy pacing likely diluted in equal measure.

After Monday night’s marathon debate, and with only 33 days before a crowded field is pared down to two finalists, French voters may at least be a little more certain of their picks.

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