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

Russia, spending power, women in Muslim headscarves, immigration, wind farms, Macron’s pout and Le Pen’s printed tweet - we look at what they discussed and the clashes

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen face off in a televised debate ahead of the presidential election on Sunday (April 24) Pic: Screenshot / BFMTV

French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen went head to head for over two-and-a-half hours last night (April 20) in a televised debate watched by around 15.6 million people.

The two covered a range of topics based on eight preset themes including spending power, international and social affairs, the environment, security, young people and immigration. They also spoke at length about Covid and debt, which was not in the original plan. 

Here we pull out key takeaways from the exchange.

You can watch the full debate in the video linked below. 

Lessons learned from 2017

The debate was far less heated than five years ago, when the same two candidates were also in the second round of the presidential election. Then, Ms Le Pen (Rassemblement National) was criticised for being too aggressive and disorganised in a similar TV debate. Mr Macron (La République en Marche), meanwhile, was criticised for arrogance. 

Ms Le Pen has called that debate “the biggest failure in my political career”, and vowed this time to be more calm – and she was. In fact, during the opening exchanges she was almost hesitant, with long “ehhhs” preceding answers she did not seem sure of - but she grew more sure as the debate went on.

Clément Viktorovitch, a political scientist and specialist in the field of rhetoric, said Mr Macron behaved more like the challenger, rather than the incumbent, questioning Ms Le Pen more than she questioned him.

“Marine Le Pen did not really ask the president about his record during his five-year term,” he told Franceinfo.

“As the debate progressed, the roles were reversed: it was Emmanuel Macron who held Marine Le Pen to account for the last five years.”

Mr Macron’s own goal for the evening was to come across as less arrogant. In that respect, he did not win, with 50% of viewers polled saying he came across as arrogant, compared to 16% for Ms Le Pen, a survey by Elabe commissioned by BFMTV shows. 

Despite that, the same poll showed Mr Macron as the winner of the debate, with 59% of those surveyed giving him the victory. 

Spending power

This was the first theme of the night. Mr Macron spoke of extending caps on energy prices, which have seen France record some of the lowest inflation rates in Europe. 

Ms Le Pen’s plan to combat rising household expenses is to scrap VAT on certain essential products and lower it to 5% for energy, a measure Mr Macron criticised as being ineffective. 

The economic think tank Asterès reported that lowering or removing the VAT would only result in a net gain of €13 per household per year, a point Mr Macron referenced. 

He also said it would benefit many people who did not need it, such as himself and Ms Le Pen. 

Ms Le Pen admitted that she was also in favour of Mr Macron’s energy price caps, even though she voted against the measure in parliament. 

“I am pleased you are in favour of keeping it, despite your negative vote, it’s a good thing,” Mr Macron said. 

Ms Le Pen retorted that she voted against it because she wants to “change the system from top to bottom”. 

Macron accuses Le Pen of being dependent on Putin’s money

The two candidates were asked to discuss Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24. 

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 €9-billion loan from a Russian bank in 2014 to help fund her 2017 election campaign. 

Ms Le Pen responded that she did it because no French bank would lend her the money, placing blame partially on Mr Macron for this. 

"You were the economy minister at the time," she said.

“Nobody ever intervened, you know that very well.” She said her party was a poor party and needed the money. 

This exchange was one of the most heated of the evening. 

Climate sceptic / climate hypocrite

The pair were asked about their views on climate change and global warming. Mr Macron accused Ms Le Pen of being a “climatosceptique”, meaning a climate change denier. 

He said that her environmental programme was inhorent, describing it as being “sans queue ni tête” (without rhyme nor reason). 

He criticised her for not having one mention of environmental measures in her programme of “22 measures for France”. 

Ms Le Pen denied being a climatosceptique and called Mr Macron a “climatohypocrite”. 

She called his ecology programme “punishing”, and said she supported “localisme”, meaning local production. 

Ms Le Pen is strongly against wind farms in France, and said Mr Macron wanted to install them everywhere, “except off the coast of Le Touquet”.

Read more: Le Pen: Is her plan to ban all French wind farms realistic?

Mr Macron has a holiday villa in Le Touquet, a seaside town on the Opal Coast in Pas-de-Calais. 

Ms Le Pen was referring to the fact that in a 2017 project to create offshore wind farms, those planned for just off the coast of Le Touquet were scrapped. These were not the only ones that did not go ahead for environmental reasons, but it was still a point scored for Ms Le Pen. 

Banning the headscarf in public will start a ‘civil war’

"I am in favour of banning the Muslim headscarf in public spaces because I think it is a uniform imposed by Islamists," Ms Le Pen said.

Ms Le Pen had previously claimed that banning the headscarf was no longer her main priority with regards to the election campaign.

Mr Macron said that such a law would start a civil war. He called it a “law of rejection”, meaning to reject certain members of society. 

Macron’s pout and Le Pen’s printed Tweet

Mr Macron’s facial expressions, particularly in the opening exchanges, seemed to suggest his weariness with Ms Le Pen. He sat with a sad pout, arms folded under his chin. This was quickly picked up on by internet users, who made memes out of the “moue de Macron” (Macron’s pout). 

One Twitter user said, “this is me when there are no chips at the cantine”. 

Another part of the debate that has been mocked by internet users is Ms Le Pen’s decision to print out one of her Tweets showing her support for Ukraine. 

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