PARIS – Marine Le Pen’s hoped-for redemption began with a false start. She launched into the opening speech of her head-to-head presidential debate with Emmanuel Macron too early, while the opening sequence of the programme was playing. The presenters had to interrupt the far-right leader to inform her that her first words had been drowned out by the programme jingle. Embarrassed, she began her statement again. Her opponent smiled at the faux pas, raising his eyes skywards.
It was not a good opening for Le Pen, whose team had been briefing that she was well prepared and confident of winning, five years after a disastrous performance in a debate against Macron before the second round of voting in the last French presidential election. Yesterday (20 April), having been slipping in the polls from a high of 49 per cent just before this year’s first round on 10 April down to around 44-46 per cent, Le Pen needed a turnaround to gain momentum.
Whether Le Pen’s opening slip-up will be remembered as having denied her the boost she needed to finally make it over the line may be known only at the close of the second round on 24 April.
The debate began with a section on the cost of living, which should have been comfortable territory for Le Pen, who has made it her central campaign issue. She would lower VAT on energy and cap the prices of essential goods, she said, saying her measures would be paid for by cutting “unnecessary and harmful spending” and targeting “disappearing” government revenue.
Yet Macron immediately went on the offensive, frequently interrupting her to criticise her policies and challenge her figures. His energy price cap was “twice as effective” as a cut to VAT, he claimed, adding that Le Pen’s plans to raise salaries by 10 per cent could not be implemented. “You will not decide salaries for employers, Ms Le Pen,” who failed to find an adequate riposte. Macron twisted the knife. “You have not answered because you have no answers.”
Macron would return to his strategy of interrupting and challenging Le Pen throughout the almost three-hour long debate, sometimes not letting his opponent get a full sentence in. His strategy was to catch her out on the detail of policies, reputedly a weak point of hers. He often corrected her on figures, citing statistics on employment and inflation from an alphabet soup of governmental bodies and institutes, from Insee (the national statistical agency) to the ILO (International Labour Organisation).
Le Pen rarely followed up and sometimes accepted her opponent’s corrections, leaving viewers with the impression that Macron had a far better grasp of detail. “I know this number off by heart,” he told her when she attacked him for raising the national debt.
The section of the debate focusing on foreign policy was perhaps the most memorable. Nominally intended to focus largely on Russia’s war in Ukraine, Macron quickly zeroed in on a loan Le Pen had received in 2015 from a Russo-Czech bank. “You depend on the Russian government,” Macron charged. Le Pen, on the defensive, admitted that she had yet to pay off her debt. “When you speak to Russia, you are speaking to your banker,” Macron concluded triumphantly. A substantive debate on international relations it was not, but it did help the president to dismantle the image of Le Pen as a stateswoman, as she calls herself in her campaign literature.
Le Pen denied that she would seek to leave the EU, asserting instead that she wanted to stay within the club and transform it into a looser grouping of nation-states, though she did not specify how she would convince other member states to support this. Her frequent attacks on Brussels overreach and her promises to change the bloc’s purpose amount to, in effect, emulating the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s strategy of wrecking the EU from the inside.
Macron ran the risk of seeming imperious and unwilling to listen to criticism with his aggressive strategy. “Your manifesto has neither head nor tail,” he said at one point. “You are a climate-sceptic,” at another. But the perception that the president is arrogant is already well entrenched. Better to be seen as too haughty than to let his opponent make long criticisms of his term in power, to which many voters, from the right to the left, are sympathetic.
Le Pen’s proposals rarely sounded radical, aside from on security and immigration, the far right’s bread and butter. “We are faced with true barbarism, true savagery” because of “massive and anarchic immigration”, she said, reiterating her plans to hold a referendum on immigration and identity as one of her first acts in office. One of her few verbal slip-ups of the night came as she stumbled over the acronym FSPRT, an anti-terrorism mechanism.
Macron offered a vigorous challenge to Le Pen’s proposal to ban the Islamic veil in public; in recent weeks she has had difficulty explaining how she would implement it. Macron charged that her answers conflated the religion of Islam, Islamism, foreigners and terrorism, in doing so betraying “the France of universalism”. He asked Le Pen whether she would “tear off” the veil of Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of a French soldier murdered in a terrorist attack, leaving his rival all but speechless.
The debate will not have convinced many voters one way or the other. Le Pen’s undeniable improvement on her 2017 performance was not enough to win the debate overall, but she did appear calmer and more competent than five years ago. With two days of campaigning to go, however, she needed an event to turn her campaign around if she was to finally overtake Macron in the polls. A merely improved performance was not it.
[See also: The evolution of Marine Le Pen]