Thursday, May 5, 2022

Le Pen is mightier than before, but still no match for Macron

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Le Pen had learned her lessons from 2017, but Mr Macron still trounced her in last night’s French presidential debate

In her television clash with President Emmanuel Macron last night, Marine Le Pen overcame her main challenge: not to repeat her disastrous 2017 debate performance when her aggressive, awkward and inept conduct became a byword for a fiasco. For almost three hours, the far-right presidential contender capably brandished statistics, had a better grasp of her dossiers and showcased a softer, more emotionally intelligent side to her personality to French voters.

However, Mr Macron still trounced her.

The president, facing a rematch with Ms Le Pen in Sunday’s run-off election, never looked troubled. He had an easy command of data and policies, delivered witty and cutting responses to attacks on his record, and connected smoothly with his audience. While Mr Macron is known for charm, intelligence and self-belief, he is also a devastating debater, as he showed last night. He was in a different class to Ms Le Pen. If he was fencing with an epée, she was wielding a baguette.

The contrast emerged in the opening exchange on the cost of living, a theme that should have favored Ms Le Pen, who has built her campaign on it. She said the French people were suffering from a loss of purchasing power and promised various solutions, particularly for the working classes. But Mr Macron countered that whenever his government tackled the issue, through measures like the recent price cap on fuel prices, Ms Le Pen’s party always voted against them in the National Assembly. It would become a regular theme in the debate, with her claims undercut by her own voting record or past statements.

Ms Le Pen slipped further when the debate turned to the war in Ukraine, where she tried to show her “absolute solidarity and compassion” with the embattled country. Mr Macron had little difficulty denting her credibility, pointing out Ms Le Pen’s previous admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin – a photo of them shaking hands features in her campaign flyer – as well as the €9m (£8m) loan her party took from a Russian bank in 2015 that effectively put her on the Kremlin’s payroll. “You depend on Russia and you depend on Mr Putin,” he said. “When you speak to Russia, you are not speaking to any foreign leader, you are talking to your banker.”

When it came to climate policies, Mr Macron accused her of being a “climate skeptic” while Ms Le Pen replied that the president was a “climate hypocrite.” But while she ranted against renewable energy, lambasting wind power as “an ecological absurdity, an economic absurdity”, Mr Macron pointed to a massive hole in her energy policies: only relying on nuclear power would not be enough as new power plants will only come online in 2035.

Ms Le Pen probably thought she was on stronger ground when she attacked Mr Macron’s proposed pensions reform, which includes measures to raise the retirement age to 65, but again she had no answers when asked how her sums would add up. “You never explain how you would finance your projects. You are not honest with people,” Mr Macron said.

Even on Islam, one of her most defining issues, which she linked to “massive anarchic immigration”, headscarves, terrorism and security, simply gave Mr Macron a chance to accuse her of fearmongering. “You live on fear and resentment,” he said.

The grueling duel ran on 20 minutes beyond the allotted 2.5 hours slot. While Ms Le Pen looked more comfortable than five years ago, she was still tense, and by the end, nervously avoided looking Mr Macron in the eyes. The president’s body language and voice, by contrast, were relaxed almost to the point of boredom: he watched her with pity, seemingly amused by how easy his opponent was making the contest.

In the 2017 election, Mr Macron won handsomely by 66 to 34 percent against Ms Le Pen. This time, the polls put them much closer, with the president leading by an average of around 10 percent. The debate will probably give him a slight bump: a poll by BFMTV of its viewers found Mr Macron won it by 59 percent to 39 percent. That could prove crucial: Ms Le Pen needed a clear victory to change the course of the election. But it wasn’t even close.

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