Paris (AFP) – French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen clashed over terrorism, the economy and Europe Wednesday, trading barbs in a heated TV debate ahead of this weekend’s runoff.
Macron branded Le Pen a liar whose “hidden project” was to raise taxes and borrow heavily to fund her nationalist ambitions.
She hit back that the 39-year-old former investment banker favoured “uncontrolled globalisation” and would sell off state assets to the highest bidder.
In particularly sharp exchanges, Le Pen accused Macron of an “indulgent attitude” towards Islamic fundamentalism and said he opposed measures to fight extremism after a series of deadly attacks in France.
Macron retorted that he would be “uncompromising” in fighting terror, but said what she was proposing would lead to “a civil war”.
“The terrorists want there to be divisions between us,” he said, accusing her of “hate-filled speech”.
Opinion polls show Macron is ahead going into Sunday’s decisive vote, scoring 59 percent to 41 percent for Le Pen, but previous debates during the rollercoaster French campaign have quickly shifted public opinion.
The tone was set in the first minutes of the only face-to-face debate before the second-round vote, with Le Pen branding the former economy minister “the candidate of the elite” and the “darling of the system”.
Macron retorted that Le Pen, the 48-year-old scion of the National Front (FN) party, was “the heir of a system which has prospered from the fury of the French people for decades”, adding: “You play with fear.”
Le Pen said she would protect state assets and increase people’s spending power, while her rival would sell off French state companies to foreign buyers.
“In my vision, everything is not for sale, everything cannot be bought,” she said.
Macron hit back: “Your strategy is to tell lots of lies, you don’t propose anything.”
- ‘Merkel would lead France’ –
Turning to the European Union, Le Pen said Macron as president would allow France to be crushed by its economically powerful neighbour Germany.
“France will be led by a woman, either me or Mrs Merkel,” she said, referring to the German chancellor.
Le Pen wants to hold a referendum on whether France should stay in the European Union, while Macron is fervently pro-Europe.
She set out her plans — criticised by economists — to scrap the euro for daily purchases and return to the franc, although the euro would remain the currency “for central banks and companies”.
“The euro is the currency of bankers, it’s not the people’s currency,” she said.
Her rival responded: “The euro is important. It’s not just a policy.”
The debate marks a new step into the mainstream for Le Pen, whose party was once considered by France’s political establishment to be an extremist fringe that should be boycotted.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the final round of the presidential election in 2002, his conservative opponent Jacques Chirac refused to debate with him out of fear of “normalising hate and intolerance”.
Fifteen years later, Le Pen scored 21.3 percent in the first round of the French election on April 23 after softening the FN’s image — but without fully removing doubt about the party’s core beliefs.
The debate was her biggest chance in front of a live television audience of millions to impress undecided voters.
Socialist President Francois Hollande and members of the government have led warnings about the risk of a Le Pen presidency, with around a third of voters set to abstain, according to pollsters’ predictions.
“We are in a zone of absolute danger,” warned Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem before the debate. “Do not play Russian roulette with our democracy.”
Hollande told reporters that “we shouldn’t think the result is a foregone conclusion” and urged Macron, his former advisor and economy minister, to make clear his different vision of France in Europe and the world.
Macron quit the government last August to concentrate on his new centrist political movement En Marche, which has drawn 250,000 members in 12 months.
<figure><figcaption>French presidential election candidates centrist Emmanuel Macron of the En Marche movement (R) and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN) party went head to head in a television debate ahead of Sunday's second round vote <span>Copyright POOL/AFP Eric FEFERBERG</span> </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/79b1526baf177b25e2850c862a3c8330b6ca893c-2.jpg" width="768" height="512"><figcaption>Centrist Emmanuel Macron plans to challenge Marine Le Pen's "false solutions" in the last debate before the vote on May 7 <span>Copyright AFP Eric FEFERBERG</span> </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/4e9f621077f7ed3780c220f1eaee97fb47d84ee5-2.jpg" width="768" height="511"><figcaption>Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has portrayed her ex-investment banker rival as an advocate of uncontrolled globalisation and immigration <span>Copyright POOL/AFP CHARLES PLATIAU</span> </figcaption></figure>