Emmanuel Macron appeared to have kept his frontrunner status against Marine Le Pen after a bruising live TV presidential debate days before the final vote this weekend in which the centrist and far-right candidates traded venomous personal insults and clashed over how to fix the sluggish French economy and fight terrorism.
In the prolonged two-and-a-half-hour slanging match that featured more invective than any other debate in French presidential history, Macron branded Front National candidate Le Pen an ill-informed, corrupt, dangerously nationalistic and “hate-filled” liar who “fed off France’s misery” and would bring “civil war” to France.
She in turn called the former economy minister an arrogant, spoilt, cold-eyed, “smirking banker” who was colluding with Islamists, complacent on terrorism and intent on “butchering France” in favour of “big economic interests”.
Both accused the other of taking French people for imbeciles. At one point, after a long attack saying Le Pen was lying to the French public, Macron snapped: “I’m sorry, Madame Le Pen; France deserves better than you.” More than 15 million people watched the debate.
Snap polling by Elabe for BFM television just after Le Pen had left the TV studios, accusing Macron of “lies and aggression”, found that a clear majority felt the centrist candidate had been the most convincing. Viewing figures said 16 .5 million people watched the debate.
French media on Thursday declared Macron the winner of a “dirty debate”. Le Pen was criticised for her “permanent aggression” and even normally sympathetic publications found her “unconvincing”.
Libération accused Le Pen of “multiplying attacks and provocations … and thus avoiding any serious debate” while Ruth Elkrief, political editor for BFMTV declared it “not worthy of a presidential election campaign”.
In a debate heavier on insults than policy detail, viewers lost count of the times Macron mocked Le Pen’s recourse to her notes and slammed her for “talking nonsense”. She snapped back that he was “arrogant”, babyish and craven to big finance.
On jobs – one of the biggest concerns in a country that has struggled with decades of mass unemployment — Macron told Le Pen: “Your strategy is simply to tell a lot of lies and just to say what isn’t going right in the country.” She said he favoured “uncontrolled globalisation” and would sell off state assets to the highest bidder.
Although Le Pen was under pressure to flesh out her policy proposals, she spent more time attacking Macron and the record of the outgoing Socialist government.
Terrorism was another key issue after a series of deadly attacks killed more than 230 people in France in just over two years. Le Pen accused Macron of an “indulgent attitude” towards Islamic fundamentalism and said he was slack on fighting extremism. He replied he would be “uncompromising” on terrorism – which he called the biggest issue of the next few years in France – and said the state had to look at the social issues behind why so many terrorists who attacked France were born and raised in France. Le Pen, who this week said “globalisation and Islamism” were the main threats to France, retorted that Macron was lax on Islamism and disregarded French secularism.
Le Pen restated her plan to ban religious symbols from all public places, which would include the Muslim headscarf. Macron warned that her proposals would divide France and lead to “a civil war” and “that’s what terrorists want”. He said: “The terrorists want there to be divisions between us” and accusing his rival of “hate-filled speech”.