by John Lichfield
Thursday, 21
April 2022
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08:18

The Presidential debate revealed a new side to Macron

The French president was aggressive, bordering on angry
by John Lichfield

The Macron v Le Pen TV debate last night was a strange affair. It was gripping and dramatic but also irritating and sometimes crushingly dull.

Who won? President Emmanuel Macron won because he did not lose.

Marine Le Pen also “won” because she performed so much better than in her calamitous presidential debate performance in 2017.

The instant view of French media was that the 150 minute slanging match was a draw with, maybe, a slight edge for Macron. That should be enough for him to win Sunday’s presidential election run-off comfortably.

The President had average 12 points lead in the opinion poll before the debate. Nothing that happened last night is likely to threaten that lead. It might conceivably widen his advantage slightly.

The great surprise — to me at any rate — was that Macron was so aggressive, even angry. The expectation, given his poll lead, was that he would be low-key and take no risks.

Not a bit of it. He constantly interrupted the far-Right leader, to the point of being irritating, which is generally not considered to be a vote-winner.

Compared to 2017, they reversed roles. Five years ago, Le Pen set out to attack Macron but she got her figures and her arguments confused. She made herself seem petulant and incompetent.

Last night Macron attacked Le Pen from the first minute. He came over as petulant — but competent.

In response, she kept her calm and mostly kept her facts and arguments in order. She landed blows on Macron for his health service, education and environmental records. Macron called her a “climate-sceptic”. She shot back that he was a “climate-hypocrite.” Both are right.

As a piece of theatre, the night was badly constructed because the greatest moment of drama came at the beginning.

While answering a question on the Ukraine war, Macron launched into a full-frontal attack on Le Pen’s links to Moscow and Vladimir Putin. Her party had taken out and not yet fully repaid a €9m loan from a Russian bank, he said. That made her a “dependent” of the Russian state. “When you talk about Russia you are talking to your banker, Madame Le Pen. That’s the problem.”

Le Pen protested that she had been forced to take the loan from Moscow in 2015 because the French establishment had prevented her from getting loans from French or EU banks. That did not make her Moscow’s creature. If you took out a loan to buy a car, did that make you a vassal of your local bank-manager?

President Macron also described Le Pen’s policy towards the European Union as a “false bill of goods”. She claimed that she wanted to stay in the EU, he said, but her entire economic policy, including  border checks and national preference on jobs and trade, would break EU law and smash the European single market.

Not at all, Le Pen replied. She wanted to stay in the EU but negotiate to turn it into a loose club of “cooperating sovereign nations”. Macron interrupted: “Yes, and so then it would no longer be the European Union.”

French media commentators thought Macron’s aggressive approach made him appear arrogant and discourteous but that it did succeed in knocking Le Pen off-balance. She had wanted to make the evening a prosecution of Macron; it ended up, at least partly, as a prosecution of her.

The centre-Right Le Figaro — no friend of Macron – said that neither of the candidates had landed a “knock-out blow” but the President had gained the “upper hand”. Viewers agreed. An Elabe poll early today made Macron the winner on the night by 59% to 39%.

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Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 month ago

It’s very significant, I think, that Macron’s owners stopped Le Pen legitimately borrowing money — like any other political party — from any EU bank. I think that’s something everyone should remember, not just about Macron, but about those who own him and who are trying to own the rest of us.

Last edited 1 month ago by Francis MacGabhann
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago

Good enough reason to vote against him.

kevin smith
kevin smith
1 month ago

is “far right leader ” the most appropriate description of Le Pen ?
Some of her policies seem rather “left” than “right”

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
29 days ago
Reply to  kevin smith

Left and Right both now, if not for a long time, have very fuzzy meanings, especially on economic issues. The link between free marketeers and nationalists for example, is quite tenuous.

Victor Orban spends quite freely on benefits in Hungary – he is not usually seen as a man of the Left.

János Klein
János Klein
1 month ago

It was a very long TV-debate to sit through, I must say. At one point, Marine le Pen talked about laïcité and her project to ban the hijab (le voile) in public ; ( It’s already forbidden in schools or institutions.) whereupon Macron protested that it would lead to a civil war.
An interesting confession from him about the power of the Muslim voters.

JP Martin
JP Martin
1 month ago
Reply to  János Klein

About their voting power or about their propensity for violence?

János Klein
János Klein
1 month ago
Reply to  JP Martin

You nailed it.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

Had the EU been willing to soften ‘Ever Closer Union’ and immigration controls the UK might still be a part of it. So Le Pen’s policy of renegotiation will almost certainly fail… but perhaps that is the aim.

Simon Collis
Simon Collis
1 month ago

I watched the debate, in French. My main conclusion was that it was conducted at a more thoughtful and serious level than would be possible nowadays in the UK or the US.

Yes, Macron interrupted a bit more than was tactically wise. But to portray him as petulant, aggressive or angry is a gross distortion of what happened, more suited to tabloid journalism than to Unherd.

Le Pen mostly managed a reasonable tone, and no doubt struck a chord on cost of living and security issues. But the shallowness of her policy prescriptions was exposed.

She needed to show Macron had completely lost touch with ordinary French people to get the K.O. required to win on Sunday. Instead, Macron won on points – and given the polls, that is all he needed to do.

Chris Kew
Chris Kew
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon Collis

Watched the debate and agree with your analysis: Mr Lichfield is stretching the truth.

Last edited 1 month ago by chriskew92
Laurence Bettle
Laurence Bettle
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon Collis

I beg to differ; I also watched the whole rather dull proceedings and found the incombent president’s display of petulance, arrogance and at times rudeness particularly off-putting, having said that, he came across as far more in command of the various debated subjects and his tactics of interruptions and even at times physical smirks succeeded in upsetting her enough; ultimately President Macron’s opponent was most of the time out of her depth (and it does not help she is a poor debater).
It was an odd and rather unpleasant fight between arrogance and incompetence. We should be allowed to hope or expect better

Simon Collis
Simon Collis
1 month ago

Perhaps what you and Mr Lichfield saw as petulance and arrogance is behaviour that I saw more as a deliberate decision to challenge his opponent, to seize on unevidenced claims with a view to highlighting them, to deter her from making others, and perhaps also to throw her off balance. Not pretty, but pretty effective.

I agree we should always hope for better. But with the exception of the traded barbs on climate, I thought there was less soundbite-chasing and more policy exposition than in equivalent UK and US debates.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 month ago

France should not be lead by any leader who has obligations to Russia.
Macron’s bellicose approach is a good sign, and it probably worked.
Aux armees, citoyens! or something like that.

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 month ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

To a Russian bank actually. And she will at least receive her election expenses back from the state, unlike the socialists and the republicans, who did not get enough votes to qualify for the state subsidy. Meanwhile, the real question remains – why was she unable to borrow the money her party needed from French banks, and therefore had to look elsewhere? In 2015, Putin and Russia were dubious partners. She can hardly be blamed for what happened 2 months ago.