Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen clash tomorrow evening in an eagerly anticipated live television debate. The president has been accused of dodging the presidential campaign but it doesn’t seem to have harmed his chances of re-election, with the latest poll giving him a handsome ten point lead over his rival.
If Le Pen is to pull off a shock victory in Sunday’s second round she will need to debate with far more finesse than she did in 2017. On that occasion she was given the run-around by Macron as 16.5 million viewers looked on. The pressure on her is immense but her campaign team say she is upbeat and relishing the prospect of a rematch with her nemesis. She has been rehearsing for this moment for months with one of her advisors – a graduate of ENA like Macron – playing the part of the president in rehearsals.
Macron has also been working up to this day and he will enter the ring as favourite. He is far more intellectually nimble than Le Pen but can he take a metaphorical punch? Five years ago he was a neophyte and Le Pen struggled to land any meaningful blows because she knew so little about him. Now she has many targets to aim for: the cost of living crisis, immigration, the age of retirement, law and order and the one that Le Pen is said to be eyeing above all others: the ‘contempt’ he shows for the working class. This will be her jab throughout the evening.
She knows her only chance of winning the election is to persuade enough of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s voters to back her. A great many are the disaffected working class; they hate Macron but just can’t bring themselves to vote for her party. Le Pen must convince them otherwise.
In that respect the European Union has given Le Pen some last-minute assistance. Just as Barack Obama thought his ‘back of the queue’ intervention would boost the Remain cause in the Brexit referendum, so Brussels imagined that accusing Le Pen of
embezzlement during her time as an MEP would be a fillip for Macron. On the contrary. The accusations, aired at the weekend, have been a boon for Le Pen. She laughed on Monday when the matter was put to her. ‘I’m accustomed to the EU’s tricks of the trade days before the second round,’ she said. ‘And the French are not fooled.’
A similar accusation was levelled at Le Pen at the same stage of the 2017 election and it beggars belief that someone in Brussels didn’t stop to think how a second charge would be spun by her team. ‘Each time she is a candidate, there is a stink ball a few days before the election,’ said Laurent Jacobelli, Le Pen’s spokesman. ‘The European Union is coming to the aid of its little soldier.’
Europe will be a topic of fierce discussion tomorrow night. Macron’s government last week accused Le Pen of plotting Frexit by stealth and she will charge him with turning France into a vassal state of Brussels. Mélenchon’s voters, at least the blue collar workers among them, share Le Pen’s Euroscepticism and any suggestion that the EU is interfering in the election will not go down well.
That is why Le Pen’s campaign team were quick to jump on a report published in Thursday’s New York Times in which the paper claimed that the EU plans to ban Russian oil products but not until after the second round of the French election. Why? ‘To ensure that the impact on prices at the pump doesn’t fuel the populist candidate Marine Le Pen and hurt president Emmanuel Macron’s chances of re-election’.
Le Pen’s number two, Jordan Bardella, cited the Times’ article during a radio interview on Sunday, accusing the EU of ‘interfering’ in the presidential election. How ironic, he added, given that five years ago Macron’s team said Russia was trying to interfere with the French election.
Russia will be an area of interest for Macron in the debate and Le Pen will have to deal with some awkward questions about her past support of the Putin regime as well as her backing last year of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which proved ineffective against Covid.
Macron is the favourite to win Wednesday’s debate but in trying to box clever in the lead up to the main event has he exposed his vulnerability to his opponent? ‘Macron can’t make too many strong pledges to the left of the electorate without risking losing the right,’ explained Jérôme Sainte-Marie, an essayist and pollster. ‘Therefore he can only be negative about Marine Le Pen.’
Le Pen is unlikely to radiate positivity. Her strategy will be to portray Macron as a puppet of Brussels and an enemy of the people. It’s going to be a bare-knuckle brawl between two adversaries whose mutual distaste is mirrored by their supporters. It won’t be edifying but it should be enthralling.
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