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French election: Our pick of the 12 best quips from TV debate

‘You are a climate sceptic.’ Well, ‘you are a climate hypocrite.’ Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen clashed over issues including the environment, the EU and public finances

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen debated on various different subjects last night (April 20) Pic: Victor Joly / Shutterstock

Presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen came head to head last night (April 20) in a TV debate on the key issues of this year’s campaign. 

Read more: Macron vs Le Pen: six key points from the TV French election debate

Read more: French election: Macron seen as arrogant but he wins TV debate in poll

The debate lasted for two and a half hours and was watched by 15.6 million people, the majority of which considered Mr Macron to have won, according to a poll commissioned by BFMTV. 

Here is our selection of 12 memorable lines from the night. 

1. Your programme ‘is acknowledgement of a job well done’ on my part 

While discussing public spending power – the first debate theme – Mr Macron said that he was “proud” to have created 1.2 million jobs during his tenure as president. 

He told Ms Le Pen that he had read her programme and that “there is not one word in it about unemployment, which is striking. I have no problem with that, it is an acknowledgement of a job well done during my five years. Thank you for that.”

It was in contrast to Macron’s frequent use of ‘you are quite right, Mme Le Pen’ during the first part of the debate.

2. ‘You are talking to your banker when you speak to Russia’

The debate moved on to the war in Ukraine, and Ms Le Pen praised Mr Macron’s handling of the situation, saying, “I admit that the efforts you have made to find ways and means for peace deserve to be supported.”

Read more: ‘Macroner’: The new Ukrainian word for French president’s Putin calls

While discussing the same theme, Mr Macron reproached Ms Le Pen for depending on money from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ms Le Pen’s party took out a €9billion loan from a Russian bank in 2014 to help fund her 2017 election campaign. 

Mr Macron told Ms Le Pen: “You are not speaking to other [world] leaders, you are speaking to your banker when you speak of Russia” making reference to the loan.

“Your interests are linked to those of Russian powers. You depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr Putin,” he said. 

3. ‘I am a completely free woman’ 

In response to the above comment, Ms Le Pen said: “If I have been obliged to get a loan from abroad it is because no French bank allowed me to take out a loan. 

She said that she was not beholden to Russia because of the loan. 

“I am a completely free woman…What you are saying is false. It’s dishonest.”

4. ‘The European Single Market, finito’ 

The debate moved on to the subject of France’s place within the European Union and Ms Le Pen talked about her idea of a “Europe of Nations.” 

She made reference to “deep-seated wishes” to change the bloc’s structure and prevent travailleurs détachés - people who come to France to work short-term with their work social charges paid back in their home country.

“I want the Commission to respect sovereign nations and their choices. I do not want to leave [the EU]; if I did I would say so,” she said. 

Mr Macron replied that the measures she was proposing sounded like she wanted to distance the country from the other EU member states. 

“You say that you want France to be a shining world power, but your project would make us smaller; it would attack France’s universalism.” 

He also argued that preventing people from other member states from working in France while simultaneously promoting opportunities for French people in Europe and allowing them to continue paying social contributions in France would go against the foundations of the European Single Market. 

“The European Single Market is a market allowing the free movement of workers, goods and services, you are proposing that we break it…The European Single Market, finito.” 

5. ‘You can only gloss over the façade’

During the EU debate, Mr Macron also said: “Your project, when you piece everything together brick by brick, is a plan to leave Europe. 

“You can only gloss over the façade [of your project],” he added, suggesting that she was trying to dissimulate the reality of her plans regarding the EU behind surface-level measures. 

“[The EU] is under shared ownership. You can’t suddenly say that it is no longer shared but it is what I decide because I am called Ms Le Pen!”

Read more: Le Pen praises Brexit; Macron and allies say she is hiding Frexit plan

6. ‘Oh ay ay ay, stop confusing everything!’ 

Ms Le Pen reproached Mr Macron for having created €600billion of additional debt. He said it was mostly as a result of measures aimed at supporting the population through Covid.

The incumbent president also retorted that the figure was only €200billion from the state alone, with the rest belonging to the social security system and local authorities. 

“It is completely false Ms Le Pen,” he said. “Oh ay ay ay, stop confusing everything!”

7. ‘This Mozart of public finances’ 

Ms Le Pen argued that when Mr Macron came to power there were 5.5 million people out of work, while there are now 5.4 million. 

“So, in terms of unemployment, allow me to reserve my doubts,” she said. “You explain that you are very good with economics, businesses love you, well done.”

Ms Le Pen also went on to speak about the deficit and about productivity rates, saying that 

“This Mozart of public finances, as you have presented yourself, has very bad economic results and his results on social issues are even worse.” 

8. ‘It is not a Gérard Majax [show] this evening!’ 

During the debate on public finances and national debt, Mr Macron repeatedly argued that measures such as increased public spending had been necessary during the Covid lockdowns. 

“I accept the €600billion of Covid debt, because we had a recession which was three times worse than during the financial crisis [in 2008],” he said. “As I said, in your programme, there is no word of unemployment, why? Because we have helped. 

“The restaurant owners, the artisans, the shopkeepers, the small business owners who are listening today will tell you who helped during the Covid crisis.”

He added: “It is not a Gérard Majax [show] this evening Ms Le Pen, stop this, the figures have lives behind them, the lives of our shopkeepers, our artisans, that is our Covid debt. You voted against [the measures].”

Gérard Majax is a well-known French illusionist and magician, who makes things appear, disappear or change form seemingly without effort. 

9. ‘Only crises can make you act’

As the debate moved onto the subject of health, the president-candidate defended the investments his government has made in the sector. 

“During your five-year term, you have just waited for crises,” Ms Le Pen responded. “Only crises can make you act. You needed the Covid crisis to realise that healthcare professionals have been really struggling for years.”  

Read more: Eight facts to understand France’s issue of ‘medical deserts’

10. ‘Your programme has no rhyme nor reason’ 

Mr Macron criticised Ms Le Pen’s “incoherent” plan to reduce imports and promote “localism” while also cutting VAT on fuel – one of the country’s most important imports – from 20% to 5.5%. 

“Your programme has no rhyme nor reason,” he said.

11. ‘You are climate sceptic.’ Well ‘You are a climate hypocrite’ 

As they discussed issues relating to climate change, Mr Macron accused Ms Le Pen of being “climatosceptique” (a climate sceptic) because of doubts she has expressed about carbon neutrality targets.

She appeared taken aback and retorted: “I am absolutely not a climate sceptic but you are a bit of a climate hypocrite, and it is for this reason that people don’t believe that you want to resolve these issues.”

She argued that Mr Macron’s government’s climate-related measures simply make people feel guilty for not doing more when in reality they cannot afford to buy an electric car, for example. “This punitive ecological programme is useless,” she added. 

Ms Le Pen said that she would stop importing such a high proportion of France’s fruit, vegetables and animal products in favour of “French produce.”

Mr Macron, meanwhile, promised to accelerate France’s ecological transition with more eco-friendly home renovations and a greater emphasis on electric vehicles.

“I won’t do it by orders, but by investments,” he said.

12. ‘No, but I have read the French Constitution’

Later in the evening, the two candidates began a debate on religion and secularism.

Ms Le Pen had previously said that she would ban religious symbols, such as headscarves, in public places, although following the first election round she said that this was no longer a “major priority.”

During the debate, she expressed her desire to “fight against Islamism”.

“I think that the terrorist risk is still extremely present. There is an Islamism in our country, against which your policies have not been effective. 

“I think we should put in place legislation against the Islamist ideology. I am not fighting a religion, I’m not fighting Islam, I am fighting the Islamist ideology, which attacks the fundamentals of our Republic, which attacks gender equality, secularism, democracy.”

Read more: Marine Le Pen says French headscarf ban ‘no longer main priority’

Ms Le Pen added that she was in favour of banning Muslim headscarves, as she saw them as “an Islamist uniform”.

“A large majority of the young women who wear them cannot choose to do otherwise, even if they dare not say it,” she said.

Mr Macron said that he would not ban religious symbols in public spaces, adding that Ms Le Pen was “creating an equivalence” which confused several different issues. “The headscarf question is a question of religion,” and nothing else, he said. 

“You have not read my [proposed] law,” Ms Le Pen said, to which he replied: “No, but I have read the French Constitution.” 

“If you are elected, your laws will have to respect the Constitution,” Mr Macron said.

“You will create a civil war in certain areas of our cities because France would be the first country in the world to introduce such a rule.”

Ms Le Pen replied, “what you’re saying is very serious.”

The French constitution states that the French State must ensure “equality under the law of all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion”. 

Equally, France’s Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789) also rules out discrimination against a person based on their origin. 

The full debate can be viewed on YouTube. 

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