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Macron vs Le Pen: all you need to know about the presidential debate

Both candidates tried to win over undecided voters before Sunday’s election

By Anttoni James Numminen

Image courtesy of France24.

On Wednesday 20 April, the two remaining candidates in the French presidential election went head-to-head in a debate over the future of France.

With the second round of the election only a few days away - Sunday 24 April – both the incumbent, President Emmanuel Macron, and his challenger, Marine Le Pen, were intent on convincing their supporters and swaying the remaining undecided voters.

Though Macron is currently estimated to have a 12 point lead over Le Pen, with up to 30 per cent of voters likely to abstain from the election, the outcome is far from certain.

The debate itself, which lasted almost three hours and was broadcast live on French television, covered a wide range of topics from foreign relations to the environment and governance.

In case you did not watch it or missed parts, here’s a breakdown of the key aspects.

Who actually won the debate?

Though Marine Le Pen seemed to dominate the first half of the debate, especially when it came to issues such as purchasing power and changes to the retirement age, there was no clear winner in the debate overall.

Le Pen was in her element when it came to criticising Emmanuel Macron’s past five years in office and at first, the president came across more as a lecturer than an energetic politician, taking a more defensive stance both verbally and in terms of his body language.

However, when it came to issues such as the environment, education, and innovation in science and technology, Macron was more comfortable and called out Le Pen several times for a lack of specific policy solutions. He became more comfortable as the debate continued and on several occasions his opponent seemed to struggle for a response.

Overall, it was tamer and more even-handed than 2017’s debate which was widely seen as a trainwreck for Le Pen. But both pulled their punches and it was livelier than 1995’s Chirac vs Lionel Jospin debate.

Candidate's leaflets. Courtesy of Anttoni James Numminen.

What were the key issues?

Both candidates tried to resonate with supporters of left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon who finished third in the first-round vote with 21.95 per cent of the vote, just behind Le Pen’s 23.15 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, Le Pen tried to appeal to voters by criticising Macron’s proposal of raising the retirement age from 62 to 65, promising to improve standards of care of the elderly in nursing homes, and implementing more protectionist economic policies which would see France revise its relationship with the EU.

Meanwhile, Macron sought to appeal to young people, in particular, by trying to brandish his green credentials. He committed to placing responsibility for energy planning with the prime minister, investing in insulating buildings, subsidising the purchase of hybrid vehicles, as well maintaining a fast pace of transition to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

The pair also used the EU as an argument both for and against fighting climate change. Le Pen argued that EU free markets cause too many greenhouse gasses, instead suggesting that companies be mandated to purchase nationally and locally sourced eco-produce. Meanwhile, Macron made the case that “if you’re against Europe, you’re against innovation”, arguing that technological innovation and fighting climate change went hand-in-hand with European cooperation.

Melenchon's leaflet. Courtesy of Anttoni James Numminen

Memorable one-liners?

Televised French presidential debates, which first started in 1974, have a history of feisty moments and clever use of language and witty ripostes are considered the norm.

Here are a few memorable ones from last night:

- “It takes a crisis for you to do anything,” remarked Le Pen over what she claimed was a lack of action on healthcare reform.

- In reference to her 2017 debate performance, Macron said: “You're much better behaved this time”, to which Le Pen replied: “I’m older and wiser”.

- “I’m not a climate sceptic, you’re a climate hypocrite” quipped the National Rally’s candidate after Macron accused her of being a well-known “climate sceptic” during a debate on the environment and climate change.

- “What you are saying will cause a civil war,” said Macron over Le Pen’s commitment to ban the hijab if elected, following a flip flop in her policy.

- “Please, no General De Gaulle!” replied Macron as Le Pen (repeatedly) referenced the former French President.

Highly contested issues

Some of the fiercest debates occurred, unsurprisingly, over issues of religion, ‘French values’, and immigration.

Le Pen has arguably sought to soften her views on immigration issues in an effort to sway voters ahead of the election. But the former leader of the National Front Party also wooed supporters of Éric Zemmour, the far-right presidential candidate who garnered 7 per cent of the votes in the first round of the election.

Le Pen directly linked immigration to crime, especially Muslim immigrants, proposed a more visible police presence “to increase security”, and called for the deportation of all non-citizens who were convicted of crimes.

She also recommitted to banning the hijab “in all public places”, arguing it was a symbol of the “Islamisation” of France.

Macron came out against the policy, arguing that to ban hijabs would be contrary to “the values of the republic”, adding: “What is worrying is that you go from terrorism to Islam and on to foreigners, you are confusing all the problems. In the housing estates, what you are saying will cause a civil war. It is very serious.”

Macron also argued in favour of continuing to accept refugees and asylum seekers, in line with international obligations.

Zemmour's leaflet. Courtesy of Anttoni James Numminen.

He also opposed Le Pen’s suggestion of holding “a referendum on immigration, looking at constitutional changes” which she said would prioritise French citizens in issues of housing, employment, benefits, and healthcare.


Despite an at-times tense debate which ran 20 minutes over the allocated 2h30m run-time, Macron thanked Le Pen for the debate, saying: “I respect you as a person...though we have sincere disagreements.”

Le Pen ended on a more partisan note, promising to implement policies for “the French, for all the French.”


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