‘Little guys’ take on the big guns in chaotic French election debate

Anti-capitalist candidate draws applause and laughter with attacks on Fillon and Le Pen

A four-hour presidential debate between eleven French presidential candidates on Tuesday night was as chaotic and colourful as it was long.

Two and a half weeks before the first round of the election on April 23rd, the presence of six "little" candidates who have no chance of reaching the Élysée Palace distorted habitual labels. Compared to Philippe Poutou (0.5 per cent in opinion polls) of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, or Nathalie Arthaud (also 0.5 per cent) of Workers' Struggle, the far left socialist candidate Benoit Hamon looked like a right-winger.

Like Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing Front National (FN), the retired civil servant Francois Asselineau (0.5 per cent) wants France to leave the euro zone, the EU and Nato. But Asselineau almost made Le Pen look like a moderate, when he attacked her for bothering to hold a referendum on leaving Europe and the euro. The process would be far too slow, Asselineau argued.

The independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, who is tied with Le Pen in opinion polls for the first round, but looks positioned to defeat her in the May 7th runoff, was the only candidate firmly in the centre.

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Poutou, a worker at the Ford factory in Bordeaux, wore a long-sleeved T-shirt. With his bald pate and wispy hair, he looked hang-dog and forlorn. But his attack on “corrupt politicians who are cut off from reality” made him the star of the evening.

The candidates were asked to comment on morality in politics. "Since January, it's been a feast, a great campaign!" Poutou said, alluding to the fake jobs scandal that sank the campaign of the former front runner, the conservative Francois Fillon. Fillon is now ranked third in opinion polls.

“Fillon is sitting there, opposite me!” Poutou continued. “So many stories. The more you dig, the more you smell the corruption, cheating. What’s more, they’re guys who tell us we need rigour, we need austerity, when they’re dipping into the till…”

Minimum wage

Fillon threatened to sue Poutou, who did not spare Le Pen either. Whereas Fillon took French taxpayers’ money, Poutou said, the FN did not take French money. “For someone who is anti-European, it doesn’t matter taking European money.” The FN is accused of using hundreds of thousands of euro in European Parliament funds to pay party workers at its headquarters in Nanterre.

“The FN says it’s anti-system, but it protects itself thanks to the laws of the system with its parlimentary immunity and refuses to answer police summons,” Poutou said, referring to Le Pen’s invocation of her immunity as an MEP in refusing to be questioned by police about the parliament funds allegations.

Poutou then uttered the most memorable sentence of the evening: “Us, when we get summoned by police, we don’t have any workers’ immunity, so we go.” The television audience applauded.

A moderator asked Poutou if his idea of paying politicians the minimum wage would resolve the problem of corruption. Poutou replied, “Already, they’ll be less eager to get the job. And they’d raise the minimum wage, since they’d be affected!” The audience burst into laughter. The far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon applauded.

Fillon and Le Pen were the candidates most attacked by the others. Hamon, a former socialist cabinet minister, defended civil servants. Fillon, a former prime minister, wants to do away with 500,000 civil servants’ jobs.

“When we were in crisis, the civil servants held the country together,” Hamon said. “What you’re saying, with your arrogance, is that you want to ask more of them... I want you to say whose jobs you’d do away with. Who doesn’t see that our public service is down to the bone?” Hamon said he wanted to to create more teachers’ jobs, while Fillon wanted to build more places in prison.

When Le Pen said she wanted to inscribe “defence of historic heritage” in the constitution, Mélenchon was visibly annoyed. “You want to put religious symbols in town halls?” he asked, referring to controversy over Christmas crèches. “Is that what secularism means to you?”

“These are our traditions,” Le Pen replied. “Perhaps they bother you…”

“They don’t bother me at all,” Mélenchon said. “Maybe I have a crèche at home, but I don’t impose it on everybody else.” Mélenchon said that 65 per cent of French people “have no religion” and ordered Le Pen to “leave us alone with your religion. Stop trying to tell us how to live!”

Macron disputed Le Pen’s claim that she would “protect” the French. “What you are proposing is economic warfare. You’ll destroy jobs. You’re proposing nationalism... Nationalism is war,” Macron said, quoting the late president Francois Mitterrand. His home region of Picardy is filled with cemeteries from two world wars, Macron noted.

Le Pen accused Macron of using a 50-year-old quote. “But Madame Le Pen, you’re repeating lies we’ve been hearing for 40 years, that we heard from the mouth of your father,” Macron retorted.

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, founded the FN in 1972.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times