Just four days before French voters return to the polls on May 7 to elect a president, the two remaining candidates for the presidency, centrist Emmanuel Macron of En Marche and far-right Marine Le Pen of the National Front, sat down for a nationally televised 140-minute debate.
It was supposed to be a robust exchange in which both candidates presented their opposing visions of France’s future. It turned into an all-out verbal brawl filled with vicious name calling and nonstop interruptions.
The key issues on the table were immigration, terrorism, a painful 10 percent unemployment rate, and the future of France’s place in Europe. But quite a bit of time was spent debating France’s past rather than its future, with the two candidates arguing over France’s role in the Holocaust and its long history of colonialism in North Africa.
Indeed, the image of France itself seemed to hang in the balance, with the candidates frequently waxing philosophical on what type of France they believed in and which France would be revealed on May 7: one that is open to the world, or one that has closed its borders and shunned Europe.
The French certainly have a way with words
Le Pen, who has taken hardline positions on “Islamic fundamentalism” and immigration, accused Macron of being "obedient to Islamist fundamentalists," repeating again and again that he has received the support of the UOIF (L'Union des Organisations Islamiques de France) — a loose organization of several hundred Muslim prayer spaces and religious organizations.
At one point, Macron called Le Pen the “priestess of fear” who “plays on the fears of citizens.” He also accused her of offending the French who had suffered during the Second World War when she denied that France was responsible for the brutal fate of the 76,000 Jews deported from France.
Le Pen stuck by her position, arguing that those who participated in the roundup of Jews were not representing France but the collaborationist Vichy regime, insisting that “France was in London then.”
Macron also insisted that Le Pen profits off a system she positions herself as outside of, when in reality she has worked in politics much of her life and her father has, famously, been in politics for more than 40 years.
Macron: "You are the coproduction of the system you denounce. Because you live off it, like a parasite." Le Pen: "That's classy". But true— Simon Kuper (@KuperSimon) May 3, 2017
The two grappled over the euro as well. In the past few days, Le Pen has appeared to waffle on what had seemed a firm campaign promise to put France’s participation in the common currency market up for a referendum. Her position has, if anything, become less clear, almost seeming as though she wants to have two currencies.
Wednesday evening, she said that “the euro is the currency of bankers, not of the people,” and seemed to suggest that perhaps French businesses could remain on the euro while the rest of the French people would go back to using the franc.
Macron pounced, telling Le Pen her ideas on the euro revealed “a crass lack of preparation.”
For her part, Le Pen repeatedly insisted that Macron is the “candidate of wild globalization.”
This was the first time a French far-right candidate has been in a debate like this
When Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, unexpectedly reached round two of the presidential election in 2002 against Jacques Chirac, Chirac refused to debate him, arguing that it would only legitimize the extreme right.
Emmanuel Macron was in no position to make such a choice. Over the past six years, Marine Le Pen has transformed the National Front from a marginalized party known primarily for its anti-Semitism and xenophobia to a nearly mainstream party with a real chance of winning.
Although polls have consistently shown Macron leading Le Pen by 20 points, a cloud of uncertainty has hovered over any predictions of the final results.
That’s partly because Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left populist who took 19.3 percent in the first round of elections on April 23, has refused to officially endorse Macron. On Tuesday evening, new polls showed that most of Mélenchon’s supporters are planning to drop a blank vote in the ballot box or to abstain altogether. Protests on Monday anecdotally backed up those polling numbers, with hundreds marching in the streets, still wearing their Mélenchon stickers and protesting a choice between two candidates they refuse to support.
Nevertheless, both Le Pen and Macron would like those votes.
A snap poll taken just after the debate ended by Elabe, a French polling company, and the television channel BFMTV gave the debate to Macron, with 63 percent of those polled saying Macron was the “most convincing,” versus just 34 percent for Le Pen.
“She came across as extreme and, especially on the euro, as having no polices, just lashing out,” said political scientist Catherine Fieschi immediately after the debate. “By the end of the debate, he was in complete control.”
Whether Macron’s performance in the debate was enough to sway undecided voters to secure a victory, however, remains to be seen.
This story is part of a Vox collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting about the upcoming French elections.