French presidential election favourite faces onslaught in TV debate

Emmanuel Macron accused by Marine Le Pen of ‘mind-boggling emptiness’

The French presidential election debate that took place on Monday night was a test of the endurance of the five leading candidates, who remained standing for nearly 3½ hours, until well after midnight, and addressed a multitude of themes under the broad headings of society, the economy and France’s place in the world.

In an indication that the extreme right-wing Front National (FN) has entered mainstream French politics, the party's candidate Marine Le Pen became the first FN leader to participate in a televised debate. She was cutting and sarcastic in her treatment of other candidates.

Ms Le Pen is likely to lead in the first round on April 23rd, but polls show she will lose to the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron in the May 7th runoff.

François Fillon, the candidate for the conservative Les Républicains, has fallen in polls from 32 per cent of the vote when he won the party's primary last November to 17.5 per cent at present. Numerous financial scandals have destroyed Mr Fillon's clean image. Mercifully for him, the scandals were barely mentioned during the debate.


You managed to talk for seven minutes, and I cannot summarise what you said. You said nothing

Mr Fillon argues that Ms Le Pen and the far left-wing candidates Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are extremists, while Mr Macron represents the continuation of François Hollande’s presidency. Mr Fillon appeared reticent during much of the debate, but maintained an arrogant presidential air.

Mr Macron, the man most likely to become France’s next president, defended himself well when attacked, but was often verbose when explaining his own policies. Other candidates gave the impression of ganging up on him.

Telling exchange

One of the most telling exchanges occurred between Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron, who are likely to face each other in the runoff. During the discussion on terrorism and foreign policy, Ms Le Pen accused Mr Macron of “mind-boggling emptiness”.

Ms Le Pen said Mr Macron “has a great talent . . . You managed to talk for seven minutes, and I cannot summarise what you said. You said nothing. I want the French to take note of the fact that every time you speak, you say a little of this and a little of that and you never decide. One doesn’t know what you want and that is worrying.”

Mr Macron accused Ms Le Pen of labelling anything that did not coincide with her own opinions vague. "If you didn't understand that contrary to you, I don't want to make deals with Mr Putin . . . that contrary to you, I want a strong, responsible French [foreign] policy, not ruin, not expenditure that we cannot finance . . . that contrary to you, I acknowledge fully that I want a strong France in Europe. That is our great disagreement," he said.

"I am not going to wear myself out responding to these ad hominem attacks

Mr Macron was attacked by Mr Hamon and Ms Le Pen regarding his wealthy supporters. Mr Hamon denounced “industrial lobbies that weigh on political decisions”.

“I launched a political movement that renews political life,” Mr Macron retorted, saying he has 32,000 donors who have given an average of €50 each.

‘Private interests’

Ms Le Pen picked up from Mr Hamon. "The advantage of this campaign is that it makes one discover that there are candidates who defend private interests, big groups, and not the interests of the French," she said. "I am shocked by the revolving door between the public and private sectors, the way one is trained in the grandes écoles to become a civil servant. One becomes a banker and then a politician."

Mr Macron attended the prestigious école nationale d'administration, earned millions at Banque Rothschild, then joined the staff of President Hollande before become a cabinet minister.

“I am not going to wear myself out responding to these ad hominem attacks,” Mr Macron responded. “What you have described are conflicts of interest, which is an offence. So either what you have said is defamation, Madame Le Pen, or you should be more precise and complain to the justice system.”

Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron also clashed regarding secularism. Ms Le Pen accused Mr Macron of approving of the wearing of the Islamic swimsuit known as the burkini on French beaches.

“Please, Madame Le Pen. I don’t speak on your behalf,” Mr Macron replied. “I don’t need a ventriloquist. If I want to say something I’ll say it.”

“So what do you think of the burkini?” Ms Le Pen asked.

“I’ve said very clearly that it has nothing to do with secularism. It’s not religious. It’s a question of public order,” Mr Macron replied.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor