French presidential election: the most memorable political clashes

As the live televised presidential debate between President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen draws near, we look back on the pivotal battles of this French political tradition.

French presidential election: the most memorable political clashes
French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen are set to debate on TV for the French presidency in a continuing run-off that polls predict risks being tight. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA and CHARLES PLATIAU / various sources / AFP)

The pair will trade blows from 9pm Paris time on Wednesday in a debate that is set to be watched by millions nationwide ahead of the April 24th run-off election.

Unlike the United States, where Republican and Democratic candidates spar at least twice, France’s frontrunners get just one chance to take each down on live TV.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are the key policy differences between Macron and Le Pen?

The televised political match is set to be a crucial moment in a tight race for the Élysée.

Here, we take a look at past clashes in what is now a French political tradition, many of which are etched into the memories of the French as turning points in political history.

1974: Hearts and minds

Around 25 million people tuned in for France’s the first ever US-inspired televised presidential debate, pitting Socialist candidate François Mitterrand against centrist finance minister Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

The two were neck-and-neck in the polls but the patrician Mitterrand’s attempts to lecture his reform-minded opponent on wealth redistribution backfired.

“It’s a matter of heart not just intelligence,” Mitterrand argued, to which Giscard retorted: “You don’t have a monopoly on the heart, Mr Mitterrand.”

Giscard won the election.

1981: ‘Man of the past’

Seven years later, the two met again, with Mitterrand itching to take revenge.

This time, the incumbent was the one talking down to his opponent, calling him a “man of the past” and asking him to prove his economic credentials by quoting the franc-deutschmark exchange rate.

“I’m not your student!” Mitterrand objected.

Giscard was voted out after a single term.

READ ALSO: The Macron v Le Pen debate: What happens?

1988: President vs premier

1988 produced the strange spectacle of a president taking on his own prime minister. Mitterrand and centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac were uneasy bedfellows in what the French call a “cohabitation”, where the president and government are from opposite sides of the left-right divide.

Sparks flew when Chirac insisted on calling the incumbent “Mister Mitterrand” instead of “Mister president.”

Former French President Jacques Chirac was a master of the insult. (Photo by SEBASTIEN NOGIER / AFP)

“Tonight I’m not the prime minister and you’re not the president of the republic…We’re two equal candidates,” Chirac said.

“You’re quite right, mister prime minister,” Mitterrand snapped back. Mitterrand got re-elected.

1995: Return of the right

While the first three debates got voters’ blood up, the excessively civil duel between Chirac and former Mitterrand minister Lionel Jospin in 1995 was met with howls of disappointment.

The only memorable line from their exchange was Jospin’s claim that “it’s better to have five years with Jospin (he backed the shift from a seven-year to a five-year presidential mandate) than seven years with Chirac.”

Chirac triumphed nonetheless, winning back the presidency for the right.

2002: No debate with Le Pen

In 2002, France was in shock after far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen overtook Jospin in the first round of the election to tee up a spot in the run-off against the incumbent Chirac.


Chirac refused to have a debate with Le Pen saying that “faced with intolerance and hatred, no debate is possible.” Le Pen accused him of “copping out.”

Backed by moderates from both the right and left Chirac trounced Le Pen.

2007: ‘Calm down!’

The first woman to make a presidential run-off, the Socialist Party’s Segolene Royal, went on the attack in 2007 against then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy over support for the disabled.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy casts his ballot for the first round of France's presidential election at a polling station in Paris

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy casts his ballot for the first round of France’s presidential election at a polling station in Paris. (Photo: Julien de Rosa / AFP)

Sarkozy, who has a reputation for irascibility, refused to take the bait. “Calm down!” he told her.

“To be a president, you have to be calm.” Royal refused to concede the point, insisting her anger is “very healthy”.

Sarkozy won.

2012: ‘I, president’

Five years later, the pugnacious Sarkozy badly needed to land a knockout blow on Royal’s former partner François Hollande in order to hang onto the presidency. The taunts flew. Sarkozy called Hollande “a little slanderer” and accused him of lying.

But it was the Socialist Party leader, who had campaigned as a Mr Normal, who delivered the most memorable lines.

In a series of statements starting “I, as president of the republic” he set out plans to clean up the tainted political landscape bequeathed by his rival. Hollande won.

2017: Wipeout

The 2017 debate, pitting nationalist Marine Le Pen – daughter of Jean-Marie who made history when he got into the run-off round in 2002 – against liberal centrist Macron is deemed the most brutal of all.

READ ALSO: Macron talks up green credentials ahead of French election

Le Pen was accused of drawing from Donald Trump’s populist playbook by mocking Macron’s relationship with his wife, Brigitte. Macron for his part accused her of “lies”.

Le Pen got increasingly flummoxed and rummaged through her notes when Macron took her to task on her economic programme, including her plans to bring back the French franc.

Le Pen later admits that she “failed” the test. Macron won.

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France proposes getting rid of penalties for ‘minor’ speeding offences

The French government is considering changing speeding laws so that drivers will not lose points on their licence if they are caught going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

France proposes getting rid of penalties for 'minor' speeding offences

France’s Interior Ministry is considering changing its current rules for minor speeding violations – proposing getting rid of the penalty for drivers who only violate the rule by going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

The Ministry has not laid out a timeline for when this could come into effect, but they said they are currently in the preliminary stages of studying how the change could be carried out.

“The fine of course remains,” said the Interior Ministry to French daily Le Parisien.

That is to say you can still be fined for going five kilometres over the speed limit, but there might not be any more lost points for driving a couple kilometres over the posted limit. 

READ ALSO These are the offences that can cost you points on your driving licence

Of the 13 million speeding tickets issued each year in France, 58 percent are for speeding violations of less than 5 km per hour over the limit, with many coming from automated radar machines.

How does the current rule work?

The rule itself is already a bit flexible, depending on where the speeding violation occurs.

If the violation happens in an urban area or low-speed zone (under 50 km per hour limit), then it is considered a 4th class offence, which involves a fixed fine of €135. Drivers can also lose a point on their licences as a penalty for this offence. 

Whereas, on highways and high-speed roads, the consequences of speeding by 5 km per hour are less severe. The offence is only considered 3rd class, which means the fixed fine is €68. There is still the possibility of losing a point on your licence, however. 

How do people feel about this?

Pierre Chasseray, a representative from the organisation “40 Millions d’Automobilistes,” thinks the government should do away with all penalties for minor speeding offences, including fines. He told French daily Le Parisien that this is only a “first step.”

Meanwhile, others are concerned that the move to get rid of points-deductions could end up encouraging people to speed, as they’ll think there is no longer any consequence.

To avoid being accused of carelessness, France’s Interior Ministry is also promising to become “firmer” with regards to people who use other people’s licences in order to get out of losing points – say by sending their spouse’s or grandmother’s instead of their own after being caught speeding. The Interior Ministry plans to digitalise license and registration in an effort to combat this. 

Ultimately, if you are worried about running out of points on your licence, there are still ways to recover them.

You can recover your points after six months of driving without committing any other offences, and there are also awareness training courses that allow you to gain your points back. It should be noted, however, that these trainings typically cost between €150 and €250, and they do not allow you to regain more than four points.