A head to head debate between presidential candidates, Marine Le Pen and rival, Emmanuel Macron, is taking place live across French television tonight.
In typical French debate style, the pleasantries were brief and it was straight to the substance, beginning with France’s economic woes and high unemployment rate.
It was Le Pen who struck the first blow, setting the tone by describing Macron as ”the darling child of the system and the elites”, whose mask had now slipped, and accusing him of standing for unbridled globalization and the ”uberization” of society. An aggressive Macron was soon on the attack, going straight for the jugular, interrupting Le Pen from the early stages and cutting her off at every opportunity.
During Macron’s early attacks, a confident-looking Le Pen kept her cool, and remained smiling despite initially being talked over by her rival, eventually regaining an equilibrium with her signature subjects of globalization, security and the European Union, accusing Macron of supporting a vision of society where everything is for sale and subject to market values, and of being complacent on terrorism.
In one of the most tweeted Le Pen quotes of the evening, the candidate affirmed that ”France will be ruled by a woman, either me or Mrs Merkel.” In another widely tweeted remark, which some say is a reference to Macron’s school-boy romance with the teacher he later married, Le Pen – on being interrupted – scolded, ”I see you’re trying to play teacher – pupil. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not my thing.”
In contrast with US presidential debates, there was limited intervention from the two moderators. No breaks or commercials would take place. A timer ensured that each candidate benefited from equal speaking time.
If one of Macron’s tactics was to attack at every turn, Le Pen’s response was to stay calm, smiling back confidently, at times leaving Macron looking frenetic in a forum where body language, tone of voice and not losing one’s head can be as persuasive as the words spoken. Macron defended his position well, however, in the two and a half hour spectacle which was expected to attract a massive audience.
On Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, Le Pen reigned, restating her commitment to expel foreign terror suspects, close radical mosques and accusing Macron of accepting the support offered by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, reportedly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Macron has refused to condemn the group, recently receiving their endorsement.
Le Pen read out a statement made at a conference held by the controversial Islamic organization, calling for the death penalty for homosexuals. Macron went on the defensive, charging his adversary of engaging in a discourse of hate that would lead to what the extremists want – civil war, ‘’the trap’’ of the terrorists, he accused.
Again, on delinquency and crime, Le Pen dominated, scoffing at her opponent’s suggestion of fines for anti-social behavior. Who exactly would go to collect the fines in the country’s ‘’no-go zones’’, where police are no longer in control, she asked.
On Europe, Macron warned that for France to leave the EU and the euro would be ”to leave history.” Suggesting his rival had no project, he responded to several of Le Pen’s attacks with claims she was lying, and stating that she was not worthy of defending French institutions; ”France deserves better than you”, Macron charged.
A clear Le Pen tactic was to constantly remind Macron of his time in the outgoing administration as Minister of the Economy, and of the failures of the administration, a tactic which visibly grated on the nerves of her rival by the half-way mark. The media consensus, however, was that Macron emerged as the evening’s victor.
Heated all the way through – with no punches spared by either candidate – the debate is one of the closing acts of an election campaign, the result of which could define France and Europe for a generation.