OPINION: Le Pen needed a debate miracle to win France’s election. She didn’t get one

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen put in a much better performance in the live TV debate than she did in 2017. But, argues John Lichfield, she was still picked apart by an arrogant but well-prepared Emmanuel Macron.

OPINION: Le Pen needed a debate miracle to win France's election. She didn't get one
Marine Le Pen leaves the TV studios after Wednesday night's debate. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

They thought it was all over. It is now.

There was no Marine Miracle in Wednesday night’s French presidential election TV debate. To have any hope of closing the 12-point gap in the opinion polls, she needed to inflict on President Emmanuel Macron the kind of crushing embarrassment that she suffered on the same occasion five years ago.

She failed. She was far better than last time, calmer and well-briefed (despite a few stumbles.) But President Macron defied expectations by going on the offensive – at the risk of offending TV viewers.

He was ill-tempered. He was arrogant. He interrupted her constantly.  “Aie, aie, aie, Madame Le Pen…You mix up everything Madame Le Pen…You say everything and its opposite Madame Le Pen…No, no, no, you are mixing quarterly growth and annual growth.”

FACTCHECK: The Macron v Le Pen debate

Had the President lost his cool? No. He had made a strategic choice to knock her off balance from the beginning. He interrupted a discussion on Ukraine to accuse Le Pen of being a Russian asset, bought and paid for by a not-yet-repaid €9 million loan from 2015.

“You are dependent on the Russian state, you are dependant on Putin,” Macron said. “When you talk to Russia you are talking to your banker.”

Le Pen protested that she had been forced to take the loan from Moscow because the French establishment, including Macron, had blocked her from getting loans from French or EU banks .That did not make her Moscow’s creature, she said. If you took out a loan to buy a car, did that make you a vassal of your local bank manager?

Le Pen hit back quite well at times. Macron called her a “climate- sceptic”. She shot back that he was “climate-hypocrite”. She made effective attacks on Macron’s record on education, health care and security.

But by the end – almost three hours – she was clearly flagging.

An Elabe poll made Macron the victor in the debate by 59 percent to 39 percent. I’d say that was rather generous to him. His constant interruptions will have annoyed many people. They annoyed me at times.

But he achieved his aim. She wanted to make the debate a prosecution of Macron. The defendant turned on his would-be prosecutor and pointed out her many mistruths and incoherences.

READ ALSO 6 take-outs from the Macron v Le Pen TV clash

On the cost of living and low wages – her biggest campaign selling point – Macron picked her apart. She accused him of using the taxpayers’ money to send inflation-busting cheques to low-income tax-payers.

And who, Macron asked, would pay for her plan to reduce VAT on diesel and petrol from 20 percent to 5.5 percent? The taxpayer. And that policy would be half as effective. It would help the rich as well as the struggling. It would undermine the drive to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.   

On the EU, the President said that Le Pen’s policy amounted to a “false prospectus” or “dishonest bill of goods”. She said she no longer wanted to leave the EU or the Euro but, in truth,  she wanted to leave in “all but name”. Her whole economic policy – such as French national preference on jobs and trade – was contrary to EU law.

In response, Le Pen insisted that she did want to stay in the EU but she would push to transform the EU-27 into an organisation of “cooperating sovereign nations”.

“And so it would no longer be the European Union,” Macron responded. Gotcha.

Le  Pen was on safer ground on security and migration. But she looked taken aback – and had no good response – when he suggested that her plan to ban the Islamic head scarf from French streets would lead to “civil war”.

In the debate five years ago, Le Pen could not explain or, in some cases, remember her own policies. This time around she has done her home-work but she was tripped up by the fact that her core promises – on the EU, on the economy – are half-baked and self-contradictory.

Macron was right to go after her. He could perhaps have done it more elegantly. Macron haters will find no reason to change their minds after the debate – but they will never change their minds anyway.

The instant debate poll by Elabe suggests that this strange election is all but over and that Macron will win on Sunday by at least 10 points. It was always unlikely that the debate could save Le Pen. The poll may be a little too kind to Macron but it reflects a stark reality all the same.

 Le Pen’s last tiny chance has gone. Hooray to that.

Member comments

  1. John, sorry to see you repeating the “Macron: Arrogant” mantra/cliche. I think you, like me, have followed every French president since de Gaulle. Pompidou, Giscard, Mitterrand (Dieu), Chirac, Sarkozy — none of them exactly blushing flowers. Arrogance, or high self-esteem, seems to be a prime qualification to be a French president. Only poor old Hollande failed to come up to scratch.

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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.