Macron Brushes Off Attacks as Debate Reassures Investors
Macron Says Le Pen Risks ‘Civil War’ in France Over Muslim Veils
(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron and nationalist leader Marine Le Pen struggled to land a knock out blow during their one-and-only debate, an encounter that left the French president in the box seat four days before the final round of the presidential election on Sunday.
Some 15.6 million viewers watched the long and rather technical head-to-head on Wednesday during which both candidates confirmed their positions on key issues, from tech startups to the European Union. Both were careful to avoid reaching the hostility of their previous encounter in 2017.
During one of the more tense moments of the night, Macron lashed out at his rival for conflating Islam, security and terrorism and said her plans to ban the veil in all public spaces would trigger violent unrest. “What you propose is a betrayal of the French spirit,” he said.
There were no big surprises and the debate appeared unlikely to change a trend that has seen the president’s advantage in polls steadily widen to nearly 12 points over Le Pen. Overall, it was seen as reassuring for markets. “Macron pointed out a lot of errors and scored some points,” Nicholas Dungan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Bloomberg TV. “He might not get any votes, but he probably didn’t lose any.”
Macron, 44, said Sunday’s vote will be a referendum on the European Union, French-German relations and climate policies. Last time out, he was a political novelty promising to tear down the establishment. This time he has a track record and his rival attacked it with relish.
Le Pen insisted the French will be better off on purchasing power and security under her rule. Calling Macron a “Mozart of Finance,” a moniker that has followed him since his days as an investment banker, she said that France has become a dangerous place for people with any kind of wealth and criticized the jump in government borrowing during the pandemic and his plans to raise the retirement age.
The president, accused Le Pen of lying as he ripped into her explanation of how she wants to reform the EU, repeatedly interrupting her and saying she was getting her facts wrong. Le Pen said his economic policies had been a disappointment and referred to herself as the “spokeswoman of the French people.”
After a disastrous debate performance derailed her chances in the last election, Le Pen, 53, was more prepared this time around and largely appeared more moderate, until the discussion about Islam.
Macron was judged to be more convincing by 59% of viewers, according to a snap poll of 650 adults by Elabe for BFMTV. Some 39% said Le Pen was more convincing.
With just four days to go until the French decide between two radically different visions for their future, opinion polls show there are still many undecided voters and both candidates are targeting the supporters of far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished just behind Le Pen in the first round with 7.7 million votes.
A group of Melenchon supporters gathered in a bar in the suburbs of Paris to follow the cut and thrust which stretched on for almost three hours. They appeared largely unconvinced by either candidate, laughing when Le Pen said she would be the president of fraternity, harmony and “civil peace” and visibly bored by the five-minute-long discussion on a Russian loan to Le Pen’s movement.
“You depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr. Putin,” Macron said, adding that Le Pen’s pro-Russian sympathies are reflected in her policy positions. Le Pen recognized that the loan from 2014 remains outstanding but insisted it will take time to pay it back. “We are a poor party, but that doesn’t dishonor us,” she said. “He knows what he says is false” and “a bit dishonest.”
Presidential debates have been a fixture in France since 1974, and they’re widely followed, even by those who aren’t otherwise interested in politics. Some 16.5 million viewers tuned in five years ago. But whereas debates used to be broadcast only on TV, social media has given them a new relevance, and observers say that what matters most are the short extracts that are shared among friends.
Even before the event concluded, memes on social media are making fun of Macron looking at Le Pen with disdain and Le Pen repeatedly answering “this is false” to Macron’s attacks.
Le Pen was looking at Macron squarely in the eyes for most of debate, after being attacked for not doing that last time. She smiled often whereas Macron looked at the moderators.
The president has often been criticized for using overly complex language, made a clear effort to speak clearly and concisely. Le Pen repeatedly complained he wasn’t letting her finish her sentences. “Stop cutting me off,” she said at one point.
Their discussion of purchasing power turned into a numbers battle, and their argument over unemployment was a key dividing point in this election campaign.
While Melenchon himself has previously urged his supporters not to vote for Le Pen, without endorsing Macron, he wasn’t offering them any further guidance on Wednesday.
“What a waste,” he tweeted shortly after the debate wrapped up. “The country deserved better than that.”
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