Le Pen sells moderation to shorten distances with Macron in a tense electoral debate | International

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French President Emmanuel Macron dominated the content and dialectics of this Wednesday night's debate against his rival Marine Le Pen, but he did not leave her out of the game like five years ago. Le Pen resisted. He has softened the image of him and is more tanned. Although she is the candidate of the extreme right, the president renounced to apply the qualification of her. She preferred to question her competence to rule.

Between mutual accusations of "falsehood" and "dishonesty", the centrist Macron tried to dismantle his rival's program and its inconsistencies. And he managed to put her on the defensive: as if what was in question was not the administration of the president these five years, but the proposals of the candidate.

Le Pen did not always know how to respond to the arguments of a president who knows the issues by heart and dominates the dialectic. But Macron had to work to avoid appearing arrogant when he attacked her and displaying his intelligence: his worst enemy. One of the most tense moments occurred when he accused his rival of being financially dependent on Vladimir Putin's Russia. She denied it.

There was no definitive moment, nor major errors that will tip the balance. It may be a small victory for Le Pen, but surely not enough: the debate will hardly change anything in the campaign. Macron is the favourite, according to the polls. And yet, even if they get it right and Macron is re-elected, Le Pen will get the best result in history for the extreme right in France. On Sunday, April 24, in the second electoral round, 48.7 million French with the right to vote will decide.

"You depend on Russian power and Mr. [Vladímir] Putin”, Macron told Le Pen after throwing him in the face of the nine million euro loan that his party, the National Rally (RN), owes to a Russian bank. “And many of her positions are explained by this dependency,” he added, referring to the defense, by the candidate, of the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 or her defense of Moscow until the invasion of Ukraine in February.

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"It's false. It is dishonest,” replied Le Pen, who justified the Russian loan because no French bank wanted to lend money to his party. “We return the money every month. We are a poor party, but this is not dishonorable”.

Le Pen insisted that her position on Ukraine was very similar to Macron's. He declared himself in favor of the current sanctions, but not those that affect Russian gas and oil, because in his opinion they will end up harming the French: "We cannot afford to do harakiri in the hope of harming Russia."

The accusation of "falsehood" was repeated throughout the face-to-face. It was rude, but neither lost form, as happened to Le Pen in the previous debate between the two, in 2017. The clash between two opposing, irreconcilable visions of France, Europe and the world was staged before millions of viewers. And two styles and personalities.

Macron and Le Pen during the debate.Photo: DPA | Video: EPV

When Le Pen explained his proposal to ban the Islamic veil from the streets of France to "defend the republic and equality between women and men", the president declared that it is "a betrayal of the French spirit" of the Enlightenment. “You are going to create civil war if you do this,” he said.

The debate started with the theme that has focused the campaign: purchasing power. Although it has risen during Macron's tenure, it has been eroded in recent months by inflation.

"My priority is to return the money to the French," promised Le Pen, after listing all the promises to increase wages and lower prices, such as the massive reduction in VAT or the abolition of income tax for all those under 30 years.

Macron, when Le Pen exposed the difficulties of the working classes, repeated: “You are right to say this”. It was a way of defusing the accusation of arrogance.

But then, as she would do later when addressing other aspects of the program, she pointed out the project's inconsistencies: as a deputy, Le Pen voted against the so-called energy shield that blocks price increases. And given her lack of answers, she accused her: “You don't give answers to what I ask. It is normal! Does not have them!"

Addressing the European Union and Le Pen's proposal to replace it with an alliance of European nations, the president stated: "Your project is a project that does not say its name: exit from the EU." Le Pen accused Macron of enclosing French sovereignty in Europe and declared: “The image I have of France is that of a world power, not just a European one. you are too Eurocentric”.

To the left of the screens was Macron. On the right, LePen. Between the two, 2.5 meters away. The moderators were the journalists Gilles Bouleau and Léa Salamé, from the private channel TF1 and the public channel France 2, organizers of the debate.

Le Pen had prepared thoroughly. He cleared his schedule for two days. He isolated himself with his team. He trained with sparring. His advisers prepared thematic cards for him. She tried at all costs to avoid a repeat of the 2017 debate, when she arrived exhausted from an intense campaign, and ill-prepared. The result has gone down in the annals of debates in France: she got the facts wrong, launched unsubstantiated rumours, and displayed a lack of preparation that confirmed for a majority of French people that she was unfit for the job. Macron defeated her four days later with 66% of the vote against 34%.

Macron did not change his plans in the previous days. On the eve of the face to face, he seemed sure of his ability to face it. He continued with the planned interviews, the telephone conferences with international counterparts, the Council of Ministers on Wednesdays.

For Macron, the goal in the debate was to dispel the image of arrogance and elitism: the all-knowing technocrat, the child repellent Vicente of French politics. Prone to displaying his intelligence. And with a dangerous tendency to blurt out untimely phrases that offend many French people.

For Le Pen, it was about dispelling another image: that of a candidate who worries much of the country. Because of her history: she is the heiress of the most famous dynasty of the European extreme right. Because of her inexperience when it comes to governing and the idea that she would be incompetent at the helm of France, a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Because of her ultra-nationalist program, which, if applied, would mean a radical break with the French constitutional order and with the European Union as it has worked until now.

That Macron avoided stirring up fear of the far right is significant, perhaps signaling that the fear argument is no longer sufficient to call for a vote. Only at the end did he declare: "I fight his ideas, I fight his party, his history and his political position." Nothing more.

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