‘I’m a free woman’: Six take-outs from Macron’s live TV clash with Le Pen

Emmanuel Macron clashed with Marine Le Pen in Wednesday night's live TV debate in front of millions of French voters just days ahead of the presidential election final round. Here are six take-outs from the debate.

'I'm a free woman': Six take-outs from Macron's live TV clash with Le Pen
A picture shows TV screens displaying a live televised between French President and La Republique en Marche (LREM) party candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron (L) and French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (R), (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Macron attacks Le Pen’s ‘ineffective and unjust’ policies

Whether you agree with Macron’s economic policies, one thing has always been clear is that he’s very comfortable defending his financial ideas and justifying them with figures and data.

The first segment of Wednesday’s debate was on the question of le pouvoir d’achat or spending power of ordinary French people. It should have a been a subject that offered Le Pen a chance to land some punches.

Le Pen has promised to cut VAT on 100 essential products from 5.5 percent to 0 in a bid to ease the cost of living crisis.

Macron hit back saying the policy was “ineffective” because it would lead to very little money going back into empty pockets and that it was also “unjust” because it would benefit the country’s rich – like himself, Le Pen and the TV journalists hosting the debate.

For his part Macron proposes food cheques for the poorest families which he says is “more effective and fairer”.

He also hit out at Le Pen for appearing to suggest workers’ wages would rise by 10 percent.

“A president of the republic cannot decide on salaries for the employer. You will not choose the wages,” he said.

Later in the debate Macron attacked his rival saying “you never explain how you will finance your reforms”.

Le Pen’s economic policies have been attacked as fantasy by many of her critics in recent weeks and it’s unlikely she did anything during the debate to convince those critics that her policies were achievable and affordable.

‘I am a totally free woman’

As expected Marine Le Pen was forced to defend her links to Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, now described as a war criminal by leaders such as US President Joe Biden because crimes committed during the invasion of Ukraine.

Macron accusing her of being “dependent” on the Kremlin, describing the Russian leader as her “banker”.

“Your interests are linked to the interests of Russian power. You depend on Russian power and Mr Putin,” Macron said.

“You are dependent on the Russian government and you are dependent on Mr Putin,” Macron said, referring to a loan agreed by Le Pen’s party with a Czech-Russian bank which he said was “close to the Russian government”.

Le Pen hit back insisting that she was “an absolutely and totally free woman” and that her aim was only to defend French interests.

“If I was forced to go and make a loan abroad it was because no French bank agreed to grant me a loan,” she said adding that Macron had welcomed Vladimir Putin to the presidential retreat of Bregançon in 2017.

Le Pen stressed that she was in favour of all the sanctions against Moscow announced since Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and she backed supplying arms to Ukraine.

At one point she pulled out a printed Tweet to defend what she had previously said about defending a free and sovereign Ukraine. Predictably the moment quickly became a new internet meme.

The subject of Putin and Russia was one that Le Pen was never going to win, given the brutal war in Ukraine, but she may have emerged relatively unscathed given her courting of Putin and Russian banks was already well known.

Macron fails to lose the ‘arrogant’ tag

In the run-up the debate Macron reportedly blew his top with his advisers who repeatedly warned him not to come across as arrogant. It’s a personality trait the president has long been criticised for and given as one of the reasons for why many voters refuse to back him.

“Stop telling me not be arrogant. It’s not a yoga class,” Macron reportedly shouted.

According to many viewers on Twitter and perhaps Le Pen, who at one point told him “don’t give me any lessons”, Macron didn’t take the advice of his advisers.

Many posted a picture on Twitter of Macron resting his chin on his hands looking pitiful towards Le Pen. They accused him of being condescending and insolent.

“Macron is making the tactical mistake of treating her with condescension and disdain. He should forget her and speak to French voters with conviction and sincerity,” said Dr Matthew Fraser from the American University of Paris on Twitter.

Macron repeatedly interrupted Le Pen, no doubt to try to destabilise her and knock her off course and was frequently told by the hosts to let Le Pen finish her answers.

When she cited increased debt under Macron, he replied: “Oh dear, oh dear. Stop. you’re getting everything confused.”

Risk of ‘civil war’ in France

One of the most animated parts of the debate, as might have been expected, surrounded Islam and in particular Marine Le Pen’s plan to ban the Muslim headscarf in public places in France.

“I am in favour the banning of the headscarf in the public space”, said Le Pen justifying the plan by saying the “the veil is a uniform imposed by the Islamists”.

“We need to liberate these women,” she said.

Macron hit back, knowing that the planned ban has had Le Pen on shaky ground in recent days.

“France, the home of the Enlightenment and universalism, will become the first country in the world to ban religious symbols in public spaces. That’s
what you’re proposing, it doesn’t make sense,” he continued.

“You’re proposing how many policemen to go running after a headscarf or a kippa or a religious symbol?”

“You haven’t read my law,” said Le Pen. “Yes but I’ve read the French constitution,” said the president saying he would not support a ban on any religious symbols in public spaces.

The problem for Le Pen is that her policy on the Muslim headscarf does not appear to be one that has much support among voters outside her core. It’s one of her more extreme plans that undermines her efforts to have softened her image.

The argument was an easy win for Macron.

Climatesceptic vs ‘climate hypocrite’

Neither of these two candidates are the strongest on environmental issues but they clashed nevertheless on the subject.

Macron has been criticised for his record over the last five years and for not making green issues a priority in his programme. Le Pen has been heavily criticised for wanting to tear down wind turbines across France and end the renewable energy source.

She accused Macron of wanting to build wind turbines everywhere off the French coast apart from Le Touquet on the Channel coast – where Macron and his wife have a holiday home.

“What are you joking?” replied Macron who described his rival as a climate sceptic highlight that her “22 measures for France” did not contain the word ecology. She hit back and said Macron was a “climate hypocrite”.

Given the climate crisis we might have expected ecology issues to be much more prominent in the debate and it perhaps would have been if Macron had been up against the far-left candidate Jean Luc Melenchon.

But it was a part of the debate that failed to ignite and many in France, especially the young, might be concerned by that.

Le Pen avoids humiliation of 2017 but fails to land punches

The priority for Le Pen was to avoid a repeat of the 2017 run-off debate where Macron managed to make her look flustered and sometimes not on top of her brief.

Her critics will say she struggled with facts and technical issues around certain subjects such as the economy and that she failed to justify her planned policies.

But her performance was not a disaster as it was in 2017 and that alone reflects a small victory for her.

However being behind in the polls by 8 to 10 points the pressure was on Le Pen to land some big punches. French political analysts noted she was strangely subdued at times and expected her to be on the offensive about Macron’s record in power.

Instead it was often the president who went on the attack highlighting his rival’s parliamentary vote record on certain issues such the move to cap energy prices which she voted against before saying she would continue the policy.

Le Pen’s task was to present herself to anti-Macron voters and those planning to abstain as a viable option to be the next president of France.

And she probably failed to do that to enough voters.

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Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.