FACTCHECK: The Macron v Le Pen TV debate

It was a lengthy debate with plenty of facts and figures thrown about - so here's a check on some of the claims made by Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in their live TV debate ahead of the final round of the French presidential election.

FACTCHECK: The Macron v Le Pen TV debate
Marine Le Pen shows a printout of a tweet supporting Ukraine when attacked over her links to Russia. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Do Le Pen’s figures really not add up? Is Macron a climate sceptic or a climate hypocrite? And who the hell is Gérard Magax?

Here’s a look at the claims and counter-claims in the debate.

Is Le Pen truly in debt to Putin?

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.

This refers to a €9 million loan that Le Pen took from First Czech Russian Bank to finance her 2017 election campaign, much of this has not been repaid.

French political parties are now banned from taking financing from outside the EU, so for her 2022 campaign Le Pen went to banks in Hungary for loans, totalling €10 million. 

Macron described First Czech Russian Bank as “close to the Russian government” and said it meant that Le Pen was beholden to the Russian leader. She insisted she was a “free woman” and that her loans were from foreign banks because French banks would not lend to her.

Le Pen has certainly been friendly to Putin – her election campaign leaflet featured a picture of the pair of them shaking hands, which had to be hastily pulped after the invasion of Ukraine. Even since the invasion she has taken a much softer line than many other politicians, opposing sanctions and saying that she hopes to have Russia as an ally once the war is over.

She also promoted the Russian Sputnik vaccine during the Covid pandemic, and called for it to be rolled out in France.

How much of this is because of her debts and how much is her personal conviction, however, is impossible to say.

What will Le Pen’s proposed pension reforms cost?

Pensions were a tricky issue for Macron – his proposal to raise the retirement age to 65 has been very unpopular and he has been backtracking in recent days.

Le Pen has an easier sell with her policy, which is to reduce the pension age to 60 for anyone who started work before the age of 20. Broadly, she wants to make retirement about how long you have worked, not your age.

But how much will her plan cost?

Her team says her proposals will cost €9.6 billion per year. The think tank Institut Montaigne, however, puts that at nearer €26.5 billion per year. 

Climate sceptic or climate hypocrite?

Macron called Le Pen a “climate sceptic”, she responded by calling him a “climate hypocrite”.

Neither of them has the best record on environmental issues – the subject is barely mentioned in Le Pen’s manifesto while Macron has been accused of dragging his feet on climate issues over the past five years.

The issue – a global crisis that threatens the future of the entire planet – took up around 10 minutes of the 2 hour 45 minute debate.

Le Pen called for an end to building wind farms and the dismantling of existing wind farms, while claiming that offshore wind farms will “destroy” France’s fishing industry, a claim that would come as a surprise to the many countries around the world that have both offshore wind farms and a fishing industry.

She accused Macron of hypocrisy, saying that he was building wind farms all along the coast apart from at Le Touquet, where he and his wife have a holiday home.

It’s true that a project for a 40-turbine farm off the coast of Le Touquet was suspended in 2017 by the then-environment minister Nicolas Hulot, after consultation with stakeholders. Hulot later resigned from the government, accusing Macron of dragging his feet on environmental issues. He’s had plenty of bad words for the president since, but has never made any allegations of interference in the Le Touquet wind farm. 

Has the EU flag ‘replaced’ the French flag?

A longtime Eurosceptic (although she has dropped her plans for a Frexit, and now wants to stay in the EU but not follow its rules), Le Pen made plenty of jabs at the Europhile Macron.

As well as saying that France doesn’t defend its interests at an EU level, Le Pen also accused Macron of “replacing” the French flag with an EU flag.

On most public buildings such as schools and mairies, the French and EU flags fly side by side, with the option for a third flag for particular occasions such as the rainbow flag for Pride month. Many mairies are currently also flying the Ukrainian flag as a gesture of solidarity.

It’s usual for French government ministers to give briefings with both the French and EU flags in the background.

Le Pen was probably referring to a moment earlier this year when the EU flag was flown on its own underneath the Arc de Triomphe.

This was intended to mark France taking over the presidency of the EU, and was there for just a couple of days, although it attracted plenty of criticism from politicians on the right. 

Who is Gérard Majax?

Taking aim at the vagueness of some of Le Pen’s costing, Macron said: “It’s not Gerard Majax (on TV) this evening. You never explain how you will finance your projects and you are not honest with people.”

In case you’re not familiar, Gérard Majax is a French conjourer who was popular on TV in the 1980s.

Don’t feel too bad about not knowing that, although remaining popular with the older demographic, many younger French people had to resort to Google to find out who Macron was talking about.

Member comments

  1. Thanks to the attention paid to these elections by the Local and John Lichfield, we watched the debate last night. It took a bit of patience and accepting that we didn’t understand everything, but we were pleased we saw it and can judge for ourselves how well the candidates did.

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OPINION: Macron’s speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In the wake of Emmanuel Macron's (unusually brief) speech to the nation and an orgy of blame and speculation, John Lichfield takes a look at how the turbulent months ahead are likely to play out in France.

OPINION: Macron's speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In eight minutes on Wednesday evening, we saw the best of Emmanuel Macron and the worst of Emmanuel Macron. In his TV address to the nation, he was confident; he was solemn; above all he was brief.

He accepted that the hung parliament elected last Sunday reflected “deep divisions” in the country. He said that France  must “learn to govern differently…We must build new compromises…based on dialogue, open-mindedness and respect”.

But he failed to admit any share of responsibility in the impasse which voters have created. He said that he still had a “clear mandate” from his Presidential victory in April. He called for compromise but said that some of his own promises – no new taxes, no increased debt – were untouchable.

Hear more analysis from John and The Local team in our Talking France podcast.

In April, Macron acknowledged that he had won partly through the votes of people who disliked him but feared Marine Le Pen more. He promised to govern with them in mind. He hasn’t.

His alliance drifted through the parliamentary campaign without strongly defending Macron’s presidential programme, let alone coming up with new ideas to appease the voters, of Right or Left, who supported him on April 24th by default.

That is not the only reason for the mess that France is now in. Other factors played a part: voter fatigue; inflation; the perpetual French instinct to demand “change” but resist all changes; a campaign which largely ignored the gathering threats in the world outside.

France now finds itself, by accident, in a world which the present generation of French politicians have never known – a German, Italian, Spanish or Belgian world of coalitions, compromise and shifting alliances.

This was the world – a world of revolving-door governments –  which Charles de Gaulle devised the Presidency-dominated Fifth Republic to replace. Some argue that the return of parliamentary power will be A Good Thing.

It will generate more profound political debate and a culture of constructive compromise. I doubt it. The new National Assembly – with nine political groups, including large blocs from the Hard Left and Far Right – will be more bear-pit than Periclean Athens.

There has been a witch-hunt going on in the French media about who is “responsible” for the fact that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National leaped from 8 seats to 89 in the new Assembly.

READ ALSO Is there really a ‘voter surge’ to the far-right in France?

The Left, both in France and abroad, has blamed President Macron’s Ensemble! alliance for failing to give clear advice to its supporters last Sunday to vote for the Left in two-way, second round contests with Lepennist candidates. As a result, they say Le Pen won at least 30 seats which might have gone to the Left-Green alliance, Nupes.

They fail to point out – and the French media has only belatedly started to point out – that exactly the same thing happened, only more so, with those Left voters who faced second round races between Macron and Le Pen candidates. Almost 60 percent of the Far Right victories – 53 – came in two-way contests  between the Rassemblement National and Macron’s Ensemble! alliance.

Exit polls vary but all of them suggest that voters of the Left  abstained, or even voted for Le Pen candidates, to “screw Macron” more than Macron voters abstained or voted Le Pen to “screw” the Left.

In effect, the Macron alliance and the Left-Green alliance shot themselves collectively in the feet by abandoning the so-called Republican Front against Le Pen. Each might have won at least 30 extra seats if both had voted for one another. The Macron alliance might even have just scraped a majority – which is presumably what Left-Green voters wanted to prevent.

A similar hue and cry is in progress against the Macron camp for its alleged willingness to work with Le Pen and her deputies in the new parliament. There has been some loose talk by some Macron allies. Most senior Macron lieutenants have ruled out deals or alliances with the Far Right bloc.

But what of Macron himself, who asked Marine Le Pen when they met on Tuesday whether she would contemplate joining a government of national unity? He asked the same of most of the party-leaders he met.

All refused and as Macron said in his eight-minute address, the idea is impractical and unjustified.

Why raise it at all then? Especially with Le Pen?

Partly, I think, because Macron believes that as President of the Republic he cannot pretend that the 89 Far Right deputies do not exist. Partly, I believe that Macron is playing a would-be clever waiting game.

He sees no real prospect of a long-term alliance with the 64 centre-right deputies. He expects in the short term to conduct  urgent business – including a new anti-inflation package  -through ad hoc alliances with the centre-right and moderate Left.

In the longer term, he believes (and maybe hopes) that such cooperation is doomed to fail. He wants to be seen to have given all combinations of parliamentary peace a chance before he “declares war” and calls a new legislative election next year.

Hence last night’s message. What are all the groups in parliament – including the three Macron-supporting ones – prepared to concede to allow the vital business of government to continue?

It might have been smarter politics if Macron had said, more clearly, that he also is ready to make concessions and listen to other people’s ideas.