A punishing 3-hour debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on Wednesday revealed stark differences between the two candidates. Yet, many wonder if Macron has done enough to garner support from the disillusioned left.
On Sunday, French citizens will head to the polls for the second and final round of La Présidentielle. Unlike the United States, France’s elections take place in two rounds. The ballot for round one, which took place on April 10, contained 12 candidates. Current president Emmanuel Macron emerged in 1st place after earning 27.9% of the vote. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen came in 2nd with 23.1%, followed by left-wing populist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon with 22%, and far-right media pundit Eric Zemmour with 7.1%.
As a result, Macron and Le Pen will face off in round two on Sunday, just as they did 5 years ago. This time, however, the race is expected to be much closer. Macron can no longer count on support from the left as he did in 2017, while Le Pen is expected to pick up left-wing populists as well as those who voted for Zemmour. All eyes are on the Melenchon block and depending on the pollster, his supporters seem to be split into thirds—divided between Macron, Le Pen, and voters who are undecided or abstaining.
Melanchon has instructed his supporters to not vote for Le Pen. However, unlike Bernie Sanders who endorsed Hillary Clinton after he lost the Democratic Primary in 2016, Melenchon has failed to endorse Macron. Many young people across France plan to cast a vote blanc, leaving the presidential slot blank. Even more worrying for Macron is the fact that Le Pen has made huge gains in attracting young voters. According to France24, in the first round of voting, Macron trailed Le Pen in every age category except for voters over the age of 65.
A Bruising Debate
It was in this climate, that the two presidential finalists arrived at the studios of French television channel TF1 on Wednesday evening. Seated behind two shimmering gold desks, the candidates faced off for nearly 3 hours, graced by a projection of Le Palais de l’Élysée as their backdrop. While Macron’s popularity has nose-dived during his presidency, he is still favored to win. Despite the high stakes, however, both contenders appeared ready and well-hydrated for a prolonged wrestling match during which neither was seen pausing (by this reviewer) for even a sip of water.
As with American voters, the foremost issue in the mind of French citizens is the economy. Hence, the debate opened with a discussion of steady decreases in purchasing power. Next came Ukraine and a host of other issues including energy prices, climate change, education, France’s place in the European Union, religious freedom, immigration, and taxes. Each candidate backed their claims with statistics that were immediately refuted by their opponent. Verbal barbs were persistent but relatively tame compared to the inflammatory accusations we’ve grown accustomed to online.
By the end, it was clear that each candidate has a very different vision of where they think the country should head. I’ve provided brief summaries of a few of their positions below, sprinkling the text with political cartoons in the hopes of assuaging your concerns with light entertainment.
Both candidates prefaced their remarks about the economy by acknowledging the many French people they’d spoken with are having difficulty paying their bills. However, their proposals for easing household financial strain were very different. To combat rising energy costs, Macron wants to continue the price caps that his government has put in place for gas and electricity until the financial crisis resolves, while Le Pen advocates a permanent lowering of the value-added tax (TVA) on energy from 20% to 5%.
Le Pen’s proposal might sound attractive but Macron was quick to point out that Le Pen voted against the price caps which “blocked price increases of 40%, 60%, even 100% in certain energy sectors.” Macron, a former investment banker, claimed that lifting the caps, even if coupled with a lower TVA would have a disastrous impact on consumer energy costs. Le Pen countered by saying that she’d lower the TVA and maintain the price caps that she previously opposed.
Le Pen also proposed temporarily lifting the value-added tax on 100 essential household items. This must have an appealing ring to every French citizen. Her suggested tax break would continue as long as the rate of inflation remains higher than the rate of economic growth, which she claimed was foreseen in current forecasts. Macron disputed that claim saying that the forecasts did not predict inflation higher than growth and adding that Le Pen’s proposed tax cut is inefficient and unjustly favors the well-to-do.
Russia and Ukraine
Not surprisingly, Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine was next on the evening’s agenda. Le Pen, whose political party has received funding from a Russian bank, has been greatly criticized for her ties to Vladimir Putin. However, Le Pen began the evening throwing her support soundly behind the Ukrainian people. Macron returned repeatedly to Le Pen’s Russian financial ties. Le Pen defended herself, stating that she’d done nothing illegal by taking a Russian loan which she is paying back, and claiming that no French banks would lend her money. However, French banks did provide loans to Eric Zemmour’s party which is even further to the right, so Le Pen’s statement here is questionable.
Until the invasion, Le Pen had been a strong supporter of Russia, even condoning its annexation of Crimea. She made a point of stating that once a peace treaty is signed, she’ll seek to establish a tight relationship with Russia.
The European Union
During the 2017 presidential campaign, Le Pen stood firmly against the European Union but during their final debate Macron won favor by exposing her incoherent plans to pull France out of the Eurozone. For this election cycle, she’s softened her stance on the EU but her plans seem equally muddled. She opposes many EU policies and repeatedly stated that she wants to build a “Europe of Nations”. What that entails and why it is better remains unclear.
One of Le Pen’s key talking points revolves around citizens of other European nations who are contracted by their employers to perform work in France. Those foreign employers pay employment taxes to their native country. On Wednesday, Le Pen complained that hundreds of thousands of such jobs were robbing France of valuable revenue. Macron claimed that the numbers are closer to 50,000 workers and that France benefits from the same privilege when it sends its citizens to fulfill contracts in other European countries.
Le Pen also advanced that France should withdraw from the European energy market and return to a system where they regulate their own energy prices. Macron acknowledged that some reforms were needed in the EU system but that it was important for Europe to remain a unified block when it came to negotiating and setting energy prices.
Two days after the first round of voting, Le Pen unveiled her new campaign slogan Pour tous les Français, “For all French people”. She repeated her new rallying cry at every opportunity throughout the debate. In this light she advanced her proposal that French citizens be first in line for overly-strained public housing slots. In her official platform on the matter, she states that giving priority to French citizens would rapidly produce over 600,000 available units. The implication being that all non-citizens currently in public housing would be evicted.
When questioned, however, Le Pen claimed that she was a victim of fake news and that she has never intended to evict current residents. She further advanced that since French people have paid for those dwellings, they rightfully deserve to have higher priority over foreign residents. Again, the statement is misleading. Most public housing residents, even those that are not citizens, hold jobs and pay French taxes. In addition, according to Le Monde, public housing construction is financed via government loans that are paid back over time through rent.
A long discussion also ensued over each candidate’s ideas about the age of eligibility for retirement benefits. Le Pen, who has won the favor of the working class, argues that the current age of 62 should be lowered to 60 for people that began their careers between the ages of 17 and 20. In an effort to stanch a rising deficit, however, Macron has proposed gradually raising the age of retirement to 65.
In countering Le Pen’s attack that his proposed plan is an “absolutely unacceptible injustice”, Macron explained that advances made in health care, life expectancy, and independent living offset the burden of having to work longer. He prefers raising the age of retirement to the alternative of raising taxes in order to pay for current retirement benefits, which he increased during his mandate. Interestingly, voters over the age of 65 strongly back Macron.
Reason to be Nervous or Hopeful
According to a poll taken by FranceInfo the day after the debate, Macron is leading Le Pen by more than 15 percentage points. But victory rests heavily on the participation of an apathetic electorate. Will the disenchanted bother to go to the polls when the candidate they’ve grown to dislike only slightly less than his adversary is expected to win anyway? Only time will tell.
Even more than usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
- Le Monde, Débat Macron-Le Pen : ce qu’il faut retenir du débat de l’entre-deux-tours de la présidentielle
- RFI, Présidentielle française: un débat Macron-Le Pen musclé mais sans dérapages
- FranceInfo, Présidentielle 2022 : les deux tiers des soutiens à Jean-Luc Mélenchon interrogés par La France insoumise choisissent de ne pas voter pour Emmanuel Macron
- FranceInfo, Présidentielle 2022. Ils ont voté Mélenchon au 1er tour, pourquoi ces électeurs sont tentés par Le Pen au 2e tour
- l’Usine Nouvelle, Les cinq passes d’armes du débat Macron – Le Pen sur l’industrie, l’économie et l’énergie
- Youtube, Présidentielle 2022 : le débat entre Macron et Le Pen résumé en 6 minutes
- France24, French presidential election coverage on FRANCE 24
- France24, The Highs and Lows of Macron’s Five Years in Office
- America, The Jesuit Review, Trump was never popular with young voters. So how did Marine Le Pen win over France’s youth?
- Euractiv, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National revises stance towards EU and the euro