Macron cements French presidential front-runner status with combative debate performance

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen sit prior to a live televised debate, in Paris, on April 20, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (REUTERS) - French President Emmanuel Macron cleared a major hurdle on the path to re-election with a combative TV debate performance against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen that convinced most viewers, a poll said, even if he was still deemed arrogant.

Although Le Pen came across as more polished and composed than in a TV duel for the presidency in 2017, Macron went on the offensive over her ties to Russian leadership, her plans for the economy and her policy for the European Union.

With the deciding vote just four days away, some 59 per cent of viewers found Macron to have been the most convincing in the debate, according to a snap poll for BFM TV. That suggested the almost three-hour showdown would not alter the course of the election, with Macron ahead in all previous polls.

Voter surveys have shown a widening of Macron’s lead over Le Pen to as much as 56 per cent-44 per cent since the first round on April 10, and analysts said the debate was unlikely to swing voting intentions in Le Pen’s favour.

“Yes, Emmanuel Macron won but his adversary has avoided a repeat of last time’s disaster,” Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador said on Twitter. “This debate doesn’t disqualify her like the one in 2017, but it doesn’t help her close the gap either.”

On the offensive for most of the debate, Macron’s most piercing line of attack was on a loan to Le Pen’s party for her 2017 campaign contracted through a Russian bank.

“You talk about your banker when you talk about Russia, that’s the problem,” Macron told his opponent. “You depend on Russian power, you depend on Mr. Putin.”

On the cost of living, rated the most important issue for the French in this election, Macron also appeared to put Le Pen on the defensive, asking her why she had voted against his plans to cap electricity prices if she wanted to help hard-up workers.

‘Arrogant vs scary’

Still, during the debate – their only one of the campaign – Macron failed to dispel an image of haughtiness that has taken root during his presidency. He interrupted his rival repeatedly with lines like “Mrs Le Pen is much more disciplined than five years ago”, and “Stop mixing everything up”.

“Mr Macron, stop lecturing me,” Le Pen retorted. By contrast, she adopted a much more courteous and softer tone than in 2017, even going so far as to applaud Macron’s diplomatic efforts to prevent war in Ukraine.

An Elabe snap opinion poll on each candidate’s personal characteristics showed 50 per cent of the French thought Macron had come across as arrogant during the debate, while only 16 per cent thought Le Pen had.

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Le Pen also appeared marginally more in tune with regular citizens, with 37 per cent of viewers saying she sounded closer to people’s concerns, while only 34 per cent thought Macron did.

She also delivered a memorable punchline, which may resonate with left-wing and younger voters who think Macron has not done enough to combat climate change, despite his early-mandate slogan “Make our planet great again”.

“I am not a climate sceptic, but you’re a bit of a climate hypocrite,” Le Pen quipped.

But Macron’s mastery of policy details made him look more “presidential”, the same Elabe poll showed, while she failed to convince a majority of viewers she was fit to govern.

“Each of them has a huge weakness,” Bernard Sananes of pollster Elabe said. “Emmanuel Macron is considered arrogant by more than one in two viewers. And Marine Le Pen remains scary for half of them.”

Room temperature pact 

With unemployment at a 13-year low, Macron said he was proud of job creation during his term and added: “the best way to gain purchasing power is to fight unemployment.”

The two candidates kept accusing each other of failing to respond to voters’ real concerns, with Le Pen saying that “in real life” her proposals would improve voters’ situations much more than her opponent.  

“I will make it my absolute priority over the next five years to give the French their money back,” Le Pen said, adding that the French had “suffered” throughout Macron’s mandate.  

The election presents voters with two opposing visions of France: Macron offers a pro-European, liberal platform, while Le Pen’s nationalist manifesto is founded on deep Euroscepticism.  

Much haggling went on behind the scenes ahead of the debate, from the temperature of the room to flipping a coin to decide which theme they would start with – the cost of living – to who would speak first – Le Pen.  

With both candidates dismissing the other’s plans as unrealistic but not scoring any obvious knock-out blows, it may not be clear what impact the debate has on the electorate.  

Only 14 per cent of voters were waiting for the debate to decide who to vote for, while 12 per cent said it would be decisive for whether they will vote at all, a poll by OpinionWay-Kea Partners for Les Echos newspaper showed.  

That said, after more than half of the electorate voted for far-right or hard-left candidates in the first round on April 10, Macron’s lead in opinion polls is much narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1 per cent of the vote.  

Since then, Le Pen has at least partly succeeded in attracting mainstream voters while Macron is no longer the same disruptor from outside politics that he was in the 2017 debate, which at the time cemented his status as the clear front-runner.

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