Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the two frontrunners in France’s election, clashed in the country’s first presidential debate over issues including Islam’s place in society, as initial polls indicated the former economy minister had held off his rivals.
A little more than one month before the first round of voting, Monday’s three-hour debate was characterised by finger pointing and innuendo among the five leading hopefuls, with the mainstream candidates jostling for a place in the second round, for which Ms Le Pen is likely to qualify.
In one of the fieriest exchanges of the evening, the National Front leader turned her sarcasm on Mr Macron, in comments that reignited debate on Islamic wear and the visibility of France’s Muslim community. “A few years ago, there was no burkini on beaches,” Ms Le Pen said of the full-length swimwear that a dozen French towns sought to ban last summer. “I know you are in favour of it Mr Macron.”
The centrist candidate countered: “I don’t need the talent of a ventriloquist. When I have something to say, I will say so myself.”
He added: “The trap you’re falling into, Ms Le Pen, with your provocation, it’s to divide society.”
Two post-debate internet surveys — by OpinionWay and Elabe — suggested that Mr Macron had shored up his position during the evening, indicating that about 30 per cent of the 9.8m viewers had found him the most convincing candidate, while Ms Le Pen came second or third in the rankings.
Centre-right Republican candidate François Fillon took third or fourth position, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far left fixture of French politics, prevailed over his rival Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Socialist party, who lagged behind in both polls.
Generally opinion polls indicate that Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron are engaged in a tight battle for the first-round vote on April 23, with an average of 26.2 per cent support for the FN leader against 26 per cent for the centrist candidate. Polls back Mr Macron to then defeat Ms Le Pen in the run-off on May 7.
But with four in 10 voters still undecided, the three other main candidates retain hope of getting into the second round.
At present, Mr Fillon, who faces accusations of fraud after allegedly employing his wife and children in fake jobs as parliamentary aides, is predicted to gain 19.2 per cent, well ahead of Mr Hamon and Mr Mélenchon.
During the debate, Mr Mélenchon reminded viewers that a majority of French people were atheists and said “we speak too much about religion in this country”.
But he also argued, eyeing Ms Le Pen, that secularism should not be used as an “excuse to stigmatise a religion”.
He added: “You create two categories of French and it is unbearable.”
Mr Fillon, subdued in the first half of the debate, seized on the moment to try to get back in the race. “The question before us is that of the integration of Islam,” he said.
The night also featured a series of attacks from rivals on Mr Macron — including from Mr Hamon who criticised the former minister on his campaign funding.
Mr Macron, a former Rothschild banker, replied: “My party receives no subsidies, has no elected officials.”
He added: “No companies, no industrial lobbies [are among donors], the average donation is €50.”
Mr Hamon asked: “Can you assure us that those individuals do not represent industrial lobbies?”
“I vow not to be bought by anyone, I am free,” Mr Macron said.
Ms Le Pen outlined her radical economic programme, consisting mostly of exiting the EU and levying taxes on imported goods. Conscious that most French do not want to ditch the euro, she said she would not do so “without [their] permission”, after a referendum.
Mr Fillon denounced Ms Le Pen’s plan to return to the franc. “What Ms Le Pen proposes is chaos,” he said.
“This is called project fear,” said Ms Le Pen, using a term coined by UK Brexiters last year. “This was used before the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.”