Le Pen hit with criticism – and eggs – after poor debate display

Macron impresses in ugly debate which could be taste of things to come in France

A small group of protesters threw eggs at French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen as she arrived for a campaign event in Brittany. Video: Reuters


Whatever chance the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen had of winning the French presidential election on Sunday probably died with her sloppy and aggressive performance in a television debate on Wednesday night.

The Front National (FN) candidate’s bad luck continued on Thursday when she was greeted by a hail of eggs at a factory in an area of Brittany where she had received a high score in the first round. “Fascists out!” demonstrators shouted.

Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie told RTL radio he was disappointed by her performance.“I think her entourage advised her poorly, hoping that a man who doesn’t seem very solid would collapse psychologically,” he said.

Le Pen referred to Emmanuel Macron, the Independent centrist candidate who is likely to be France’s next president. Far from breaking down, Macron rose to the occasion, making a heroic effort to explain his programme, though Le Pen’s 2½-hour tirade forced him to spend most of his time parrying blows and debunking her arguments.

“One doesn’t manage to strangle all the lies, but you kill a few of them,” Macron told France Inter radio.

Macron on Thursday filed a lawsuit against unnamed persons for “fake news intended to influence the vote”. During an exchange over financial scandals, Le Pen said, “I hope we don’t learn that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas.” Le Pen admitted on Thursday that she had no evidence of such an account.

A BFM poll after the debate showed 63 per cent of viewers believed Macron won. Only 34 per cent thought Le Pen did.

“This fight was a raw reminder of what the French extreme right stands for,” Jérôme Fenoglio, the director of Le Monde wrote in a front page editorial. “This sorry show pointed out the greatest danger: the eruption in the heart of French democracy of the brutality and duplicity of the political and family tradition embodied by Marine Le Pen.”

Doberman mode

Le Pen was in Doberman mode from the outset, calling Macron “the smirking banker”, “the darling child of the system and the elites” and “Hollande junior”. She accused of him of being “indulgent” towards terrorism. “You’re crawling on your belly before the UOIF, the banks and Germany,” she said.

The Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF) is the French branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Though it has not been linked to violence in France, Le Pen repeatedly presented the group’s preference for Macron as proof that he was in cahoots with Islamists. Jewish, Protestant and some Catholic groups also endorsed Macron without his requesting their support.

Le Pen ignored repeated pleas from Macron and moderators to explain her policies. And she missed the opportunity to question Macron’s unpopular plans to reform the labour code by decree and to diminish the wealth tax.

Macron gave as good as he got, repeatedly accusing Le Pen of lying or “talking nonsense”. He called her “the high priestess of fear” and alluded to her “crass lack of preparation” for the debate.

Macron avoided his usual pitfall of too many statistics and too much needless detail. Le Pen frequently consulted files on the table. When Macron pointed out that she had mixed up her notes on French companies, she made a pointed allusion to his marriage to a former teacher who is nearly 25 years his senior:  “I see you want to play student and teacher with me. It’s not my thing.”  

Fact-checkers at Le Monde newspaper identified 19 factual errors in Le Pen’s performance. These included the level of the French contribution to the EU, the date of the introduction of the euro, the effect of the euro on prices, EU banking rules, details of the sale of two large French companies, the numbers of workers from elsewhere in the EU working in France, and the claim that illegal aliens benefit from superior medical care to French people. She distorted quotes by Macron and President Francois Hollande.

French media reproached Le Pen for “Trump-ising” the debate with constant, often false, attacks that prevented in-depth examination of issues. Like Donald Trump, she appears to have discovered “alternative facts”. Like Trump, she based arguments on emotion, not reason.

‘First troll’

The investigative website Mediapart called Le Pen “the first troll of the nation”, a troll being someone who deliberately upsets people and starts arguments.

Le Pen promised numerous gifts to the French, including a 10 per cent tax cut for the three lowest brackets and increased welfare benefits, costing more than €100 billion annually. “You provide a laundry list of things you can’t finance,” Macron said. “There’s no such thing as magic finance.”

Le Pen failed to resolve confusion over her evolving plan to leave what she called “the currency of bankers”, the euro. “The French will not pay with euros, but with francs,” she said. “Big companies and central banks will pay with euros.”

“A big company cannot pay out euros on the one hand and their employees in francs on the other,” Macron protested. “This is great nonsense!”

The fact that about 40 per cent of the electorate are expected to vote for Le Pen on Sunday signifies widespread rejection of immigration and Islam, but it also reveals deep-seated distrust of capitalism and free market economics. “Everything is for sale,” Le Pen said, attacking Macron. “You see human relations only in terms of pay-off, only in terms of the dividends one reaps from them.”

In an Elabe poll before the debate, 18 per cent of respondents who intend to vote on Sunday said they had not taken a final decision. The debate doubtless changed a few minds.

Contrary to Macron, Le Pen at no point conveyed a presidential aura. There was speculation she had lost hope of winning, and merely wanted to consolidate support among the FN faithful. The higher her score on Sunday, the more likely she will lead opposition to Macron. If that happens, their tense and angry exchanges on Wednesday night may be a taste of things to come.

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