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French presidential debate: ‘Both candidates are aiming for a knockout’

Éric Feferberg, Pool, AFP

The two remaining candidates in France’s presidential election, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, face off in a potentially decisive TV debate on Wednesday. Historian Christian Delporte explains what is at stake in the campaign’s last major event.


France has known its share of significant – and quotable – presidential debate moments. Many remember Hollande repeating “I, as president” more than a dozen times during his 2012 debate against Nicolas Sarkozy, and then dexterously picking apart the incumbent’s tenure.

In 1974 Socialist candidate François Mitterand referred to "a matter of the heart" when discussing an economic point. Centrist Valery Giscaird d'Estaing hit back, saying: “You don’t have a monopoly on the heart, Monsieur Mitterrand.”


Both Giscard d’Estaing and Hollande went on to win those presidential races, but whether their well-placed jabs helped them secure victory, remains a matter of debate. Christian Delporte, a historian who specialises in French politics, told FRANCE 24 that both centrist upstart Macron and the surging far-right leader Le Pen know that Wednesday’s duel will largely be a spectacle made for TV, and that their respective campaigns are preparing for an epic battle.

FRANCE 24: What do you think could be different about this presidential debate compared to previous ones?

Christian Delporte: What is different is that this will be the first time that the candidate from the [far-right] National Front (FN) participates in a second-round debate [incumbent president Jacques Chirac refused to debate the FN’s Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002]. What is also different is that Emmanuel Macron occupies an atypical political position -- of being a progressive centrist. In fact, we will witness an atypical debate.

That said, we will probably find many of the usual debate practices, in particular, previously rehearsed punchlines. This is a showdown in which both candidates will be aiming for a knockout, or to at least land several good jabs. Both candidates are intensely prepping for the debate. As a matter of fact, both Macron and Le Pen cleared their schedules in the 48 hours leading up to it. They know it is one of the major events of the campaign and one that gets huge television ratings. The record remains 23 million viewers in 1981, for the second debate between Mitterrand and Giscard d’Estaing. We can say it has become a tradition of modern French politics.

F24: What can we expect from both candidates, or what strategies do you think they will adopt?

Delporte: Emmanuel Macron will try to bring credibility to his candidacy, while at the same time demonstrating that his rival is incompetent. His objective is clear: that viewers clearly see him as someone presidential. With this in mind, and after Marine Le Pen's flip-flop on the euro, we can expect an exchange on the EU common currency issue. I don’t think Macron will make overtures to supporters of [far-left candidate Jean-Luc] Mélenchon. If he wanted to, he would have done so already. Instead, he will try to “re-demonise” the National Front by showing Le Pen’s party represents a danger to democracy.

On Marine Le Pen’s side, it will be crucial to paint Emmanuel Macron as "baby Hollande". She is going to want to focus on the idea that he represents a continuity of the policies of the last five years and that he lacks experience. She will also try to emphasise that he is the candidate of “the system”, who represents the interests of the world of finance. She has the difficult challenge of charming both mainstream conservatives and far-left voters.

F24: Can the debate really sway voters? Could a blunder by Macron, who polls say will win the election on Sunday, cost him the election?

Delporte: It would take several blunders; one alone wouldn’t be enough. With only three days left in the campaign, voters have a pretty clear idea who they will vote for. We shouldn’t forget that this is an unprecedented presidential run-off, and many will vote simply to reject the National Front. In general, the favourite going into the last debate, remains so after the debate. Experience shows that the debates are above all an emotional climax of the race, but have virtually no effect on constituents. The catchphrases, like Hollande’s “I, as president”, are made for television, in the full knowledge that these soundbites will then be repeated over and over on the news channels.

This interview was translated from the original in French

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