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Marine Le Pen tirade meets logic of Macron in brutal French TV debate

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-05-2017 Helene Fouquet

Paris: Marine Le Pen unleashed a barrage of attacks on her presidential rival Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday night as she tried to close a gap of some 20 percentage points in the only head-to-head debate of the French election campaign.

Le Pen, 48, said her centrist opponent was the candidate of the capitalist elite, and a friend to terrorists, who planned to shut down factories, schools and hospitals. Macron said Le Pen’s broadsides against state bodies meant she was unfit to lead the country as she struggled to defend her plans to leave the euro.

“You have threatened public employees,” 39-year-old Macron said as his opponent chuckled on the other side of the table. “Your words show that you are not worthy to be the defender of our institutions.”

A snap survey of 1,314 likely voters by polling firm Elabe showed that 63% of respondents rated Macron as the winner, with 34% picking Le Pen.

With just three days to go before French voters settle the most turbulent election in the country’s modern history, Le Pen argued for new border restrictions to protect the French people from foreign competition and terrorism, and an exit from euro, reversing 60 years of European integration. The clash was brutal from the get-go.

“It was like a schoolyard brawl,” said Emmanuel Riviere, managing director of pollster Kantar Public France. “The candidates went straight for the jugular. Le Pen started it. But Macron also played his part.”

“You have a soft spot for Islamic fundamentalism,” Le Pen told Macron. More than 200 people have been killed by terrorists in France since the start of 2015, and Le Pen said her rival was supported by an imam expelled from France last month for posing a threat to public order.

Macron countered that she was playing politics with the insecurities of the French people and lying to her supporters. “I’m looking at the high priestess of fear-mongering,” he said. “You are a product of the system that you denounce, you live off it. You are a parasite.”

After early exchanges about security and retirement, as each played to their base without scoring points, Le Pen ran into trouble when Macron mockingly cross-examined her plans to replace the euro with two separate currencies. Things got worse for her when she raised his personal finances, only for Macron to counter by bringing up a court probe into her party funding.

“Marine Le Pen went into this as the favorite to win the debate, but it was Macron who came closer and that may have electoral consequences,” said Bernard Sananes, a pollster at Elabe.

‘Merkel’s blessing’

Macron said Le Pen’s policy proposals were full of holes, both on security and economics, and she was unprepared to govern the country. While the nationalist arrived on set carrying a ream of notes, her younger rival spoke without prompts. “Look in your files,” Macron told Le Pen over and over as she mixed up the details of her arguments. “The French people will understand that you have nothing to propose.”

Le Pen made multiple attempts to dismiss Macron for his record as a former investment banker and a minister in the unpopular outgoing government of Francois Hollande. She called him “Mister Economy Minister,” “the candidate of savage globalization” and labelled the euro “the bankers’ currency.”

“The France you are defending, isn’t France,” she said. “It’s a trading floor.”

She told him he’d travelled to Berlin to get the blessing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for his policy plans, playing on French concerns that their country plays second fiddle within the European Union. “France will be run by a woman whatever happens,” Le Pen said. “Either by me or by Mrs. Merkel.”

The two journalists hosting the debate barely got a word in. Bloomberg

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