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Macron deemed winner of fierce final TV debate with Le Pen

Stringer, AFP | A video grab from an AFP video taken on May 3, 2017 during a live broadcast televised debate in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, France.

The debate climax of this twist-after-twist French presidential campaign was loud, fast, personal, riven with inaccuracies and thin on substance -- and the candidate likeliest to become France’s next president, Emmanuel Macron, won the day.


National Front candidate Marine Le Pen came out swinging in her opening remarks, calling Macron “the candidate of wild globalisation, Uber-isation, precariousness, social brutality, the war of all against all”. From the start, she tarred the centrist former economy minister as an heir-in-waiting to unpopular outgoing Socialist President François Hollande.

The 39-year-old Macron, too, was keen to paint Le Pen, 48, as an heiress to her father, National Front founder and rabble-rouser Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was repeatedly convicted of hate speech over a political career that spanned into his 80s.

“You are the heiress of a name, of a political party, of a system that has prospered for years and years on the back of French people’s anger,” he said in his opening salvo.

Replay: Watch the final French debate in full

Macron sought again and again to dismantle Le Pen’s outsider persona, reminding French voters that her father had run for the presidency several times starting in 1974, before she ran for the first time in 2012, with similar, doomsayer tones.

'40 years of Le Pens'

“For 40 years in this country, we have had Le Pens as candidates in the presidential election,” Macron said. “In the face of the spirit of defeat, I carry a spirit of French conquest. France has always succeeded in the world, its language is spoken on every continent ... That’s what gives its strength; it radiates everywhere.” He went on to call Le Pen a “parasite” on the very system that she claims to despise. “You can’t impute to me all the sins of the past 30 years,” he said. “I’ve been in politics for less long than you.”

In the end, the virulent last clash of these two candidates who espouse platforms that could hardly be more different – call them "Make France Great Again" vs. "France is Already Great" – may have been a victory lap for the presidential hopeful who had the most to lose, Macron.

After all, the very moment that anti-immigration europhobe Marine Le Pen took the debate stage for this presidential finalists’ duel -- a hallowed ritual in France since 1974 -- she and her party were breathing rarefied. For the first time, the National Front had a truly mainstream seat in politics, after decades of thriving as a political pariah. When Le Pen’s father shocked the country by advancing to the presidential run-off in 2002 (only to lose by an 82-18 percent landslide two weeks later), his opponent for the presidency, the incumbent Jacques Chirac, refused to debate him. Tonight's debate was the big time -- and the most tangible image yet that Marine Le Pen has succeeded in her ambition to “de-demonise” her father’s party after taking over the leadership in 2011. In a phrase: Achievement unlocked.

At least eighteen points behind rival Macron in every poll, no one expected Marine Le Pen to win this election coming into the debate. That doesn’t make it impossible, but the pressure was off. She had almost nothing to lose, and yet…

For two and a half hours, the pair clashed on domestic topics like solving France’s chronically high unemployment rate, reforming retirement, improving public services, and butted heads on Europe, the euro and France’s place in the world. The journalists moderating the finalists were nearly invisible throughout, leaving the rivals to long, fast-paced, hardnosed exchanges.

'Me or Merkel', says Le Pen

Le Pen aimed to paint Macron as a mere lackey – to Hollande, to financial markets, to big business, to terrorists, to Brussels, to Berlin.

“In any case, France will be led by a woman: me or Madame Merkel,” she said in reference to Germany’s conservative chancellor. She dubbed Macron “indulgent with Islamist fundamentalists”. She stooped to making outlandish charges, such as suggesting that Macron is looking to create a networks of foreign baby surrogates and that he just might have a hidden bank account in a tax haven like the Bahamas.

Le Pen landed some zingers that sounded crafted in advance – “the euro is the currency of the bankers, not the currency of the people” – but her repartee was lost in sketchy facts and a stack of colour-coded folders piled in front of her. Macron, by contrast, seemed leagues ahead and substantially more prepared. During their key clash on the euro, Le Pen suggested the common currency existed six years before it actually did in any form – an odd fumble for the leader of a party so obsessed with the European currency.

“You are talking nonsense,” Macron could say, credibly and repeatedly. “I treat the French people like adults. I don’t lie to them,” he said. Macron repeatedly called Le Pen a liar throughout the proceedings.

Le Pen wants to “rip France out” of the euro? Macron's pro-euro argument used the example of a farmer in the Cantal department of central France who would have to pay suppliers in euros, receive payments in euros, and pay his employees in francs.

“Ooh la la, it’s going to be complicated!” Macron said. Suddenly, the supposedly out-of-touch ex-banker sounded closer to regular people’s concerns – a large majority of whom do not want to let go of the euro, according to polls – than did his dogmatic opponent.

In fact, Macron had a much taller order in this debate and far more to lose: Points in the polls, certainly – if in Sunday’s final vote the National Front scores any higher than the 40 percent at which Le Pen is currently polling, it would discredit a Macron presidency.

Elite vs. people?

But more than that, as a former top scholar, editorial assistant to a philosopher, investment banker, Elysée Palace advisor and cabinet minister, Macron had to avoid appearing condescending and not play into his opponent’s charge that he is the elite and she a relatable woman of the people.

Le Pen branded Macron “arrogant” and was happy to remind viewers of her opponent’s unsavoury-in-some-quarters professional past. But in making other points, her remarks seemed at cross-purposes. When Macron charged that she was unfit to serve as a guarantor of France’s institutions because she doesn’t hesitate to cast aspersions on the judiciary even as she is embroiled in scandals, she told Macron with evident disdain, “I was a lawyer for many years, I’ll have you know.”

FRANCE 24's Marc Perelman on the final French TV debate

Coming into this debate, only days before he is favoured to win France’s presidency, Macron remains a relative unknown and a political neophyte. Is he a grey purveyor of the status quo? A dastardly economic liberal? A Socialist Party sleeper agent? The jury, in surprising numbers so late in this game, was still out.

But over two and a half hours against a spitfire Le Pen, Macron more than held his own, painting his rival -- the trained lawyer with a lifetime of experience defending her party against all comers -- as a fear-mongering, chronic defeatist more interested in invective than policy. An instant poll by the Elabe firm after the debate deemed Macron “more convincing” by a wide margin of 63 percent to Le Pen’s 34 percent, numbers slightly better than recent polling of voter intentions.

While Le Pen scored a win of sorts simply by walking into the debate studio on Wednesday night, Macron’s objectives were more complex. He is the candidate most likely to have to put together a majority in legislative elections next month (an uphill battle) not to mention to preside over a country still unsure of him: pollsters say most of his voters are onside without enthusiasm, out of resignation. Will Macron’s voters at least be more comfortable with their choice after this battle? Quite possibly – and that is as much as he could have asked for coming into it.

“Stay on television,” Macron told Le Pen in a parting shot. “I want to preside over this country.”

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