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‘Alternative facts’ poison final French presidential debate

Joël Saget, AFP

France’s presidential debate on Wednesday was full of heated attacks and aggressive arguments between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, but it also saw a steady stream of lies and misinformation.


Le Pen, the candidate representing the far-right National Front (FN), kicked off the debate by branding Macron a clone of unpopular outgoing President François Hollande, a man she compared him to throughout the evening. Her constant assaults were interspersed with false information about the European Union, reproductive rights and immigration.

Macron was equally aggressive, repeatedly calling Le Pen the heir of her anti-Semitic father Jean-Marie Le Pen and his extremist views. As he strove to set the record straight, sometimes coming across as a teacher correcting an impertinent student, he delivered a handful of his own untruths.

FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the most egregious lies and exaggerations in one of the fiercest political debates in French TV history.

‘Your European Union costs France 9 billion euros per year’

Le Pen, who has campaigned on the promise of holding a Brexit-styled referendum on leaving Europe, accused Macron of being the lapdog of EU officials and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the debate. She said France paid 9 billion euros to the EU annually, and that the money would be better spent in France.

According to the latest official figures, France contributes 4.5 billion euros to the EU’s budget each year after deducting what it receives back. To that amount, accountants could add taxes on imports that France cedes directly to the European bloc, but even then the total amount reaches only 6.1 billion euros – the figure correctly quoted by Macron during Wednesday’s debate.

‘All French companies could use the euro between 1993 and 2002’

Last week, the anti-EU Le Pen flip-flopped on her campaign pledge to reintroduce the franc as the country’s currency, saying businesses could continue using the euro or even the ECU while ordinary citizens switched back to the franc. It was a position she struggled to defend during the debate, leading to a confusing exchange in which Macron claimed unemployment in France was higher during Europe’s “currency wars” in the early 1990s.

The euro did in fact exist alongside national currencies before each country’s money was phased out, but Le Pen exaggerated the length of the time period and scope of dual-currency use. The euro and franc existed alongside each other for three years, between 1999 and 2002, not nine years as Le Pen claimed, and the ECU was hardly ever used by French companies during its existence between 1979 and 1998.

Macron’s assertion that unemployment was worse in the 90s than today is false when counting the total number of jobless people. There were 2.6 million unemployed people in France in 1994, a figure that rose to 2.9 million in 2016. His statement is, however, true when counting unemployment as a percentage of the total population. It stood at 10.4 percent in 1994, compared to 9.7 percent last year.

‘We’re the only European country that has failed to curb mass unemployment’

There is no doubt that France is struggling with massive unemployment, which continues to hover around 10 percent, and Macron argues that lowering corporate taxes and allowing bosses to hire and fire workers more easily is the way to turn the tide. During the debate he said France was the only European country not reaping the rewards of job market deregulation.

Workers in Spain, where unemployment stands at 18 percent, or those in Italy, where it has reached 11.5 percent, might beg to differ with Macron.

‘You are creating surrogacy clinics abroad’

During the debate, and in a bid to seduce social conservatives in France, Le Pen blamed Macron for encouraging surrogacy in other countries. Hiring a woman to carry a pregnancy is illegal in France and Macron wants to keep it that way.

However, Macron’s campaign platform calls for extending French nationality to foreign surrogacy-born children who adopted by French parents, in line with a ruling by the European Court of Justice. Le Pen accused Macron of supporting a de-facto recognition of surrogacy. This is false; he is filling a void in the French legal system by deferring to a higher court.

‘Immigrants have better access to medical treatment than French people’

In the final weeks of the campaign, Le Pen has returned to the FN’s main issues of security and immigration, vowing to deport foreigners and reinstate border controls. In the debate she repeated past claims that immigrants are jeopardising France’s welfare system, and even that “illegals have better access to medical treatment or are better reimbursed than poor French citizens”.

Even if France provides medical assistance to around 250,000 to 280,000 illegal immigrants each year at a cost of up to 1 billion euros, the country spends much more on treatment for legal residents and citizens, including France’s poorest families. More than 5.2 million legal residents and citizens qualify for France’s Complimentary-Universal Health Coverage (CMU-C) which covers 100 percent of their medical expenses.

‘20 percent of fifth graders can’t read’

Macron wants to massively invest in early education, promising to drastically reduce first- and second grade class sizes in France’s toughest neighbourhoods. He argues that if students don’t learn reading fundamentals at this stage, they are doomed to fail later on. To drive his point home he said during the debate that “20 percent of fifth graders don’t know how to read”.

While many French fifth graders struggle in school, it is misleading to say one in five are illiterate. It appears that Macron was using a 2015 study by the Education Ministry as the basis of his claim. In reality, the document states that “79.8 percent” of fifth grade students have not fully acquired the ability to “identify the theme of a text, to locate explicit information, and to understand implicit information".

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