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From Le Monde: Two opposing visions of France’s independence on display in TV debate

Stringer, AFP | Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron during the televised debate in the studios of France 2 and TF1 in La Plaine-Saint-Denis on May 3, 2017

During Wednesday’s TV debate, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen went back to her usual theme of sovereignty. Emmanuel Macron, her opponent, said that in the fight against terrorism, he wants to continue working "within the alliances”.

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Both of the finalists in this presidential election refer back to former president Charles de Gaulle, France’s quintessentially sovereignty-minded statesman, but the candidates are otherwise diametrically opposed on foreign policy issues.

“The line that I want to take for France is a De Gaulle-Mitterrand line,” Macron said, adding a nod to former Socialist president François Mitterrand. “It is [about] France’s independence and I want a France that is strong within Europe,” he said, looking as well on that score to transcend the typical left-right dichotomy and stake a claim for what was, until former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in 2007, the dominant tone of French diplomacy, ever keen to make France’s distinctive voice heard, especially with regard to the Middle East.

The stance was also a way for the independent centrist to set himself apart – at least a little – from outgoing Socialist President François Hollande (under whom Macron served first as an Élysée Palace advisor and later as economy minister). Hollande, for his part, more readily emphasised the Trans-Atlantic relationship, although without disowning that diplomatic heritage in the process.

Macron insisted upon the need, particularly on the matter of Islamist terrorism, “to continue working within the alliances”, notably with the United States. "Since the Second World War, we have been on the same side, with our independent voice,” he said, alluding to France’s refusal in 2003 to take part in the US-led invasion of Iraq. The “priority” is the fight against terrorism, Macron explained, recalling several times over the course of the debate that he will become “commander-in-chief” if he is elected on Sunday.

As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Macron sought to appear firm, all the while acknowledging that Russia is a major player on Ukraine and Syria. But accepting Putin’s “diktats” is out of the question, he said, condemning his opponent as “submissive to Russia and Putin… whose values are not our own”.

Unsurprisingly, Marine Le Pen responded by taking up her usual theme of a “France that will be respected if it becomes France again”. She denounced her country’s “submission to Germany and to American policy” and called on France to “rediscover its independence” – a nod to De Gaulle. Le Pen’s vision is one of a world where nations must again play a central role, with their own identities, cultures, and institutions. She assailed “the lessons in morality that socialists seek to lecture the whole world in”, with the exception of countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Addressing the rise of strong leaders who lean on nationalism in Russia, India, China and the US, Le Pen told Macron: “These great nations are taking my line; they have turned their backs on the [economic] ultra-liberalism that you persist in defending.” Le Pen is convinced she has the wind of history at her back even as she sings a hackneyed old tune.

This article has been translated from its original in French daily Le Monde.

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