Candidates clash over terrorism, economy, Europe

PARIS: French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party, Marine Le Pen, left, and French presidential election candidate for the En Marche! movement, Emmanuel Macron pose prior to the start of a live broadcast face-to-face televised debate in television studios of French public national television channel France 2, and French private channel TF1 in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris.—AFP

PARIS: French centrist Emmanuel Macron impressed more viewers than his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in a fiery TV debate, a poll found yesterday, underlining his status as the favorite for this weekend's presidential runoff. The candidates clashed repeatedly over terrorism, the economy and Europe in Wednesday's hot-tempered debate that was watched by 16.5 million people. A poll by French broadcaster BFMTV found that 63 percent of viewers thought Macron was the "most convincing" of the two, broadly mirroring the forecast result for the decisive election on Sunday.

The duel was billed as a confrontation between Macron's call for openness and pro-market reforms and Le Pen's France-first nationalism. Le Pen branded the former economy minister and investment banker "the candidate of the elite" and the "darling of the system". Macron responded by describing the 48-year-old scion of the National Front (FN) as "the heir of a system which has prospered from the fury of the French people for decades". "The high priestess of fear is sitting before me," he said.

The 39-year-old frequently branded Le Pen a liar and even a "parasite of the system", who he said lived off the frustrations of France's stalled political system. On Europe, Le Pen accused Macron of being "submissive" towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying: "France will be led by a woman, either me or Mrs Merkel." She also accused Macron of an "indulgent attitude" towards Islamic fundamentalism and constantly sought to remind viewers of his role as a minister in unpopular President Francois Hollande's Socialist government.

But Macron was in combative form throughout, repeatedly portraying Le Pen's stance as simplistic, defeatist or dangerous and targeting her proposals to withdraw France from the euro in particular. The euro policy "was the big nonsense of Marine Le Pen's program," he said midway through the 140-minute debate. Le Pen called the euro, shared by 19 countries in the European Union and blamed by some in France for a rise in prices, as "the currency of bankers, it's not the people's currency".

Like much of the French press, Le Monde said the debate had been "brutal" and "violent from start to finish". Former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls said Le Pen "showed her true face" in the debate and "it's worrying".

No Le Pen progression

Trailing in the polls, the debate was probably Le Pen's last chance to change the dynamics of the race ahead of the final weekend of a long and unpredictable campaign. But the poll by Elabe for BFMTV showing that Macron had convinced 63 percent of viewers compared to 34 percent for Le Pen suggests she did little to win over new support. Macron would win around 60 percent to 40 percent if the vote were held now, surveys suggest. Yesterday, Macron was holding a campaign event in the southwest town of Albi while Le Pen was heading to Ennemain in the north.

The TV duel marked 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 her father 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 "normalizing hate and intolerance".

In the first round of the election on April 23, Marine Le Pen finished second scoring 21.3 percent after softening the FN's image over the past six years-but without fully removing doubt about the party's core beliefs. She sees her rise as the consequence of growing right-wing nationalism and a backlash against globalization seen in the election of Donald Trump in the United States and Britain's shock vote to leave the European Union. "I am the candidate of the people of France such as we love it, of the nation that protects jobs, security, our borders," she said in her opening comments.

Abstention factor    

The debate was unlikely to have swayed any committed supporters of either candidate, but it could influence the roughly 18 percent of undecided voters and others who were planning to abstain. Many supporters of Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came fourth in the first round, have said they will not vote on Sunday, comparing the final round as a choice between "the plague and cholera". Macron quit Hollande's government last August to concentrate on his new centrist political movement En Marche, which has drawn 250,000 members in 12 months.--AFP