French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National party, Marine Le Pen, left, and French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement, Emmanuel Macron, pose prior to the start of a live broadcast face-to-face televised debate in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, France, Wednesday, May 3, 2017 as part of the second round election campaign. Pro-European progressive Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen are facing off in their only direct debate before Sunday’s presidential runoff election. (Eric Feferberg/Pool Photo via AP)
PARIS – In a heated, high-pressure primetime TV debate, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron warned of "civil war" if his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen is elected, saying Wednesday that her hard-line plans to combat Islamic radicals would play into their hands. She painted him as subservient to Islamic extremism, saying: "They control you."
The barbed exchange over France’s fight against terrorism characterized the ill-tempered tone of the debate. Both candidates sought to land damaging blows, in a clash of styles, politics and personalities that highlighted their polar-opposite visions and plans for France.
Le Pen painted the former banker and economy minister as a servant of big business and finance, and declared herself "the candidate of the people, of the France that we love."
Saying that Islamic extremists must be "eradicated" in the wake of repeated attacks since 2015, Le Pen charged that Macron wouldn’t be up to the task.
"You won’t do that," she charged.
Macron countered that Le Pen’s anti-terror plans would play into the hands of the extremists and divide France, adding that this is "what the terrorists expect. It’s civil war, it’s division, it’s heinous speech."
He painted the far-right nationalist as an empty shell, shaky on details and seeking to profit politically from the anger of French voters — a dominant theme of the campaign. He called her "the high priestess of fear."
"You lie all the time," he said. "You propose nothing."
Sitting opposite one another at a round table, the debate quickly became a shouting match, with no common ground between the pro-European Union centrist candidate and the anti-EU Le Pen.
She had piles of notes in colored folders on her side of the table, and referred to them occasionally. His side of the table was sparser, with just a few sheets of paper. He at times rested his chin on his hands as she spoke.
They clashed over France’s finances, its future and their respective proposals for tackling its ills. He scoffed at her monetary plans, saying reintroducing a franc for purchases within France but allowing big firms to continue using the shared euro currency that Le Pen wants to abandon made no sense.
She dismissed his economic proposals with sweeping critiques and bristled at his suggestions that she didn’t understand how finance and business works.
"You’re trying to play with me like a professor with a pupil," she said.
They also clashed over foreign policy, with Le Pen saying that Macron would be in the pocket of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Either way France will be led by a woman; either me or Madame Merkel," she said derisively.
The debate offered risk and reward for both. A major trip-up or meltdown beamed direct into the homes of millions of electors could dent their presidential ambitions in the closing stages of the intense, suspenseful campaign that has, already, steered France into uncharted territory. The first round of voting on April 23 eliminated mainstream parties from the left and right and propelled the 39-year-old Macron, who has no major party backing, and the 48-year-old Le Pen into the winner-takes-all runoff on Sunday.
For both candidates, the meticulously calibrated TV face-off, organized in close collaboration with their campaign teams and held in a studio in northern Paris, was a first. Le Pen finished third in the last presidential election in 2012, locking her out of the TV debate reserved for the top two vote-getters between rounds one and two.
Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister for outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande, is running his first-ever campaign for elected office, with a year-old grassroots movement.
In a first, this year’s presidential race also included TV debates before the April 23 first round, but those involved multiple candidates, not just two. Wednesday night’s debate, scheduled to run for more than two hours, immediately highlighted the gulf between Le Pen’s "French-first" protectionist proposals for a more closed France free from the EU and Macron’s vision of a proudly pro-EU France that keeps its borders open to trade and people.
Trailing in polls, Le Pen needed a knockout blow in the debate to erode the seemingly comfortable lead of Macron, the front-runner who topped round one, nearly three points ahead of Le Pen.
For Macron, the priority was to prevent Le Pen from making up ground in the race’s final days.