Presidential candidates Marine Le Pen (Front National) and Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) locked horns and swapped insults in a live television debate lasting more than two hours last night, clashing over terrorism, the economy and Europe.
Polls suggested that 63% of viewers found Mr Macron to be ‘the more convincing’ of the two.
The candidates expressed wildly different perspectives on the direction that France should take and frequently clashed loudly.
Their approaches were contrasting. Mrs Le Pen, as expected, railed against Mr Macron’s finance career path, brought up his failings on unemployment during his time as Finance Minister in François Hollande’s Socialist government (from which he resigned to create the En Marche! party) and called him “the candidate of savage globalisation” and “ubérisation”.
She said his idea of France was as “a trading room where everyone will be fighting for themselves”, and where “everything is to be bought or sold”. She consulted her extensive notes and at times muddled topics, notably on industrial policy.
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Some French commentators noted her lack of precision while her opponent called her “crassly ill-prepared” as he countered her insults.
Mr Macron, who indicated before the debate that he would simply walk out if constantly attacked, instead fought back, often with a ‘teacher-like’ tone. Using no notes, he accused Mrs le Pen of lying and proposing nothing, and of being “the high priestess of fear”.
On terrorism, Mrs Le Pen told Mr Macron: "Security and terrorism are major issues that are completely missing from your programme," and called for the closure of radical mosques and immediate expulsion of radical preachers, as well as France’s ‘fichier S’ suspects who threaten state security.
Mr Macron said this would only play into terrorists’ hands, as what they really want is a ‘civil war’ in France. He was, however, non-committal in responding to accusations of having ties to the French union of Islamic organisations (UOIF), saying only “If they do anything contrary to French law, I will ban them”.
Their different ideologies were no more clearly opposing than on the subject of Europe.
Mrs Le Pen wants a ‘Frexit’ style opt-out referendum and has recently said the euro is finished (she wants the French franc restored). Last night she said: "Either way France will be led by a woman; either me or Madame Merkel."
Mr Macron replied: "A big company will not be able to pay in euros one the one hand and its workers in francs. That's never happened. It's rubbish."
The candidates will spend today campaigning, with Mr Macron in Albi and Mrs Le Pen in Picardy. The final scramble for votes officially ends on Friday, with the election taking place on Sunday.