Macron, Le Pen face off in high stakes election debate

By | April 20, 2022
  • Debate kicks off at 1900 GMT
  • Macron, Le Pen in tight race to win election
  • France votes on Sunday

PARIS, April 20 (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen will face off on Wednesday evening in their only debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

For Le Pen, who lags Macron in voter surveys, the much awaited confrontation is a chance to persuade voters she has the stature to be president and they should not fear seeing the far-right in power.

For Macron, possibly the biggest challenge to keeping his growing lead in opinion polls will be to not sound arrogant – something many voters have criticized him for – while poking at the holes he sees in Le Pen’s policy plans.

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On arrival at the TV headquarters, Le Pen said she was “relaxed”, while Macron said he was “focused, ready for a debate that will allow each of us to explain our ideas for France”.

The election presents voters with two opposing visions of France: Macron offers a pro-European, liberal platform, while Le Pen’s nationalist manifesto is founded on deep euroscepticism.

Some 14% of voters are waiting for the debate to decide who to vote for, while 12% say it will be decisive for whether they will vote at all, a poll by OpinionWay-Kea Partners for Les Echos newspaper showed.

“I’m keen to see what happens,” voter Joseph Lombard said in Paris. “It’s always a boxing match.”

But sources on both side said they wanted a calm debate – so much so that a source close to Macron, aware of the debate preparations, said it could be “boring”.

“The president must show he is solid … without sounding arrogant,” the source said. “He will be very serious, and she must also show she is solid on the substance.”

A source close to Le Pen said she wanted “a calm debate, project vs project”.

DIFFERENT THIS TIME?

If the two-and-a-half hour debate does pan out that way, it will be very different from the 2017 encounter, when Le Pen’s presidential challenge unravelled as she mixed up her notes and lost her footing.

The prime-time debate on that occasion cemented Macron’s status as the clear front-runner.

But Macron is no longer the disruptor from outside politics and now has a record in office that Le Pen can attack. Meanwhile, she has tacked towards mainstream voters and worked hard at softening her image.

“He’s not the same opponent anymore. He now has spent five years in power which wasn’t the case last time,” Le Pen said.

A source close to Macron said: “The French now see her as a possible president, unlike in 2017. It’s up to us to prove she would be a bad president.”

Financial markets are more sanguine about the election than they were five years ago and the odds offered by British political bookmakers on Wednesday pointed to a 90% chance of a Macron victory. read more

Nevertheless, Emmanuel Cau, head of European equity strategy at Barclays, warned against complacency among investors.

“A late shift cannot be discounted given the high number of undecided voters,” he wrote in a note.

CLOSER RACE

After more than half of the electorate voted for far-right or hard left candidates in the first round, Macron’s lead in opinion polls is much narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote. Voter surveys projected on Wednesday he would win with 55.5-56.5% this time.

Moreover, Le Pen can only do better than in the 2017 debate, which she herself called a failure, while it could be hard for Macron to repeat such a knock-out performance.

But Macron is not without assets for this debate.

With far-right pundit Eric Zemmour now out of the game, Le Pen lost a rival who made her look less radical, by comparison, and that has hit her in opinion polls.

Unemployment is at a 13-year low and the French economy has outperformed other big European countries – even if inflation is biting into that.

And while she has largely managed so far to brush it aside, Le Pen has her past admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin working against her.

Bringing the issue back to the fore, jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny urged French voters to back Macron because of Le Pen’s ties with Moscow. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy meanwhile told BFM TV that he would not want to lose the rapport he had built with Macron.

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Reporting by Michel Rose, Elizabeth Pineau, Tassilo Hummel; Additional reporting by Lucien Libert and Julien Ponthus; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Lough and Alex Richardson

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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