The French Presidential Debate Turned Boxing Match
A fiery drama played out between Le Pen and Macron on live television.
Hours before former U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed Emmanuel Macron, the French presidential candidate faced down opponent Marine Le Pen in a debate full of sharp jabs, hurled insults, and dramatic hand gestures:
“The high priestess of fear is sitting in front of me,” Macron said, making the case that Marine Le Pen is just a continuation of her father’s racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic policies. “France and the French deserve better,” he said. The 39 year-old former banker pledged to strengthen European ties, reform the country’s labor system, and take a harder stance on Russia.
The two candidates for the French presidency sparred Wednesday evening in a televised debate, each making their case to the electorate just days before Sunday’s second round of voting.
Le Pen, for her part, tried to tie Macron to François Hollande’s wildly unpopular presidency (Macron was Hollande’s minister of the economy from 2014 to 2016). Macron slapped back, accusing Le Pen of having no clear economic policies at all. “You propose nothing,” he repeatedly said. “You speak only of the past and of others.”
France would see a “total collapse” of its industries if the country doesn’t close its borders and institute protectionist trade policies, according to Le Pen. “I’m the candidate of that France that we love, who will protect our frontiers, who will protect us from savage globalization,” she said.
However, Le Pen appeared much more comfortable when taking her opponent to task on terrorism, the hallmark issue that helped vault her to the front of the presidential race in recent months. She accused Macron of being “complaisant” toward Islamic terrorism. “We have to eradicate the ideology of Islamism from France,” she charged at one point. She said, if elected, she would add 50,000 posts to French military and 15,000 police to help combat Islamic radicalism and disband organizations suspected of having extremist roots.
Macron dismissed Le Pen’s charges he was soft on terrorism. He pledged to create a Europe-wide fund to combat terrorism, recruit 10,000 new police officers, and extend France’s state of emergency first put in place after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. He also pointed out that Le Pen voted against past European reforms that could bolster security. Combatting terrorism, he said, would be his first priority as president.
He also said that France has to take some responsibility for the radicalization of people who are born and raised in the country — and Le Pen needs to answer for rhetoric dividing the country. “You are playing with anger,” he said.
Macron leads Le Pen, a far-right anti-immigrant candidate, by 20 points in the polls ahead of Sunday’s election.
At the end of the debate, Le Pen insinuated that Macron held offshore accounts in tax havens. Macron shot back in post-debate interviews Thursday.
“I’ve never had an account in any tax haven,” he told France’s Inter radio. “Le Pen is behind this. She has an internet army mobilizing.” He added she was spreading “false information and lies” that were “linked to Russian interests” to get a leg up in the final stretch of the race.
Despite Le Pen’s heated tirades, French voters thought Macron won the day. A snap poll by Elabe Polling Institute for French television network BFMTV found 63 percent of viewers thought Macron’s debate performance was more convincing than Le Pen’s.
Photo credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer