Le Pen-Macron debate echoes Trump-Clinton slugfests

Far-right presidential contender Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron clashed in their only debate between the April first-round presidential vote and Sunday’s runoff. (Eric Feferberg / AFP)

For those of us Americans who spent 270 minutes of our autumn in 2016 glued to the television debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the experience of watching Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron spar for 150 minutes, in their only exclusive debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential runoff, felt something like a cross between déjà vu and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

There was Le Pen, with half-baked policy schemes as scattered as the disheveled piles of papers and files in front of her, but plenty of resentment and the attitude you’d expect from the self-proclaimed champion of France’s working class, the losers from globalization, growing immigration and Europeanization.

There was Macron, composed to the point of arrogance, already looking beyond May 7 and toward the June parliamentary elections (where his En marche movement is hoping to go from zero seats in the 577-seat French national assembly to a majority) and beyond to at least one five-year term as the youngest president in France’s history.

At times, as one friend noted, it felt eerily like the New York University experiment that swapped Clinton’s and Trump’s genders (much to the confusion of the experiment’s audience).

On both sides, just as with Clinton-Trump, there was plenty of condescension — none of the civility that marked even the most spirited of past presidential debates. Macron called Le Pen the ‘high priestess of fear,’ whose arguments were ‘stupidities’ and ‘nonsense,’ while she sneered and laughed at him as ‘Hollande junior,’ tying him to the deeply unpopular president who chose not to seek reelection. She mocked him from the first moments of the debate as the candidate of ‘wild globalisation, Uber-isation, precariousness, social brutality, the war of all against all,’ and later claimed he was ‘indulgent with Islamist fundamentalists.’ At one point, with no evidence, she even claimed the former investment banker had a hidden ban account in the Bahamas. While Le Pen jeered him as wanting to lead a ‘France of submission,’ Macron dismissed her nationalist protectionism as a ‘culture of defeat.’

By contrast, it would be tough to imagine such a divisive debate between Conservative British prime minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the leadup to the June 8 UK general election (at least, that is, if either May or Corbyn were willing to debate).

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Though no one called anyone a ‘puppet,’ the debates even featured heated barbs over Russian president Vladimir Putin — Le Pen’s campaign has accepted funds from Russian banks and she visited Putin in Moscow just weeks before the first-round election. Le Pen quickly struck back by accusing Macron of being a plant for German chancellor Angela Merkel, arguing that no matter who wins the election, France would have its first female president — either Le Pen or Merkel.

When she wasn’t snapping at him for insulting her, Le Pen was full of such quips throughout Wednesday’s debate. At one point, the hard-right Le Pen even managed to mock Macron’s private life reminiscent of Trump’s own gendered attacks on Clinton and Clinton’s husband: ‘You’re trying to play the teacher and the pupil with me. It’s not my thing.’  No one who’s paid attention to the 2017 presidential race could miss the subtext — Macron married his high-school French teacher, who he met at age 15, and who is nearly a quarter-century older than him (she just turned 64, he’s 39).

Even Macron’s rigid body language looked ‘presidential,’ while Le Pen’s body language sometimes veered to… the Trumpian:

Perhaps Le Pen’s worst moment came over the eurozone, when it appeared that she didn’t really know what her plans were, though she’s railed against the European Union for nearly a decade. Would it be a referendum? Six months? Ten months? Sixteen months? Does ‘Frexit’ mean leaving the European Union? Or just the eurozone? Or perhaps reintroducing the franc alongside the euro, as Le Pen has more recently suggested. Le Pen has distanced herself in the last week and a half from her most drastic comments about the European Union in hopes to attract more center-right voters who previously supported former prime minister François Fillon of the conservative Les Républicains, especially older voters who fear the devaluation that could follow a ‘Frexit’ event. It was clear to anyone watching that Le Pen has exactly no idea what she and her Front national would do with real power, though she dismissed the single currency in no uncertain terms:

[T]he euro is the currency of the bankers, not the currency of the people.

For all the emphasis Macron has placed on running as an outsider — the formation of his En marche movement last year; his resignation from the governing Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) of president François Hollande, in whose government he served as economy minister; his willingness to find allies on the center-right (like François Bayrou) as well as the center-left (like former prime minister Manuel Valls) — there was no doubt that Macron was the voice of the establishment, just as Clinton was in last year’s US presidential campaign.

The Le Pen-Macron debate felt, in tone and substance, uncomfortably like the harsh and uncivil debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton last autumn.

Just like the Trump-Clinton debates, instant polls gave Macron a wide edge on points, though also like the Trump-Clinton clashes, there’s a sense that Macron’s rational case was aiming for the brains of his cosmopolitan, urban and educated base while Le Pen’s emotional case was aiming for the hearts of her rural, southern and de-industrialized base.  There’s also a sense that few voters changed their minds as a result of the debate. That includes large segments of the supporters of third-placed Fillon and the fourth-placed leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who are now threatening to become ‘ni-ni‘ voters — neither Macron nor Le Pen — who plan to abstain on Sunday or skip the vote entirely. (In particular, Mélenchon’s holdouts are reminiscent of those US voters who first supported Vermont senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries and later refused to support Clinton in the general election).

But Trump never fell as far behind Clinton as polls now show Le Pen trails Macron. Even after a relatively good week for Le Pen, Macron still leads by a margin of between 18 and 20 points in the latest polls. All signs point to a victory (though Le Pen will claim a moral victory if she significantly outpolls her father’s 18% runoff total from 2002, when incumbent Jacques Chirac simply refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen).

At a regional level, Le Pen leads only (narrowly) in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the south, and she’s competitive only in Hauts-de-France (the far north) and Grand Est (the far northeast). She trails Macron by a margin of 69% to 31% in Île-de-France, home to Paris and nearly one-fifth of the French population.

Needless to say, France’s election is not a carbon copy of the Trump-Clinton race. France’s electoral system is a two-round affair, where the winner of the runoff’s ‘popular vote’ will win the presidency — there’s no elaborate electoral college. Immigration in France has a far different character and history as a policy issue than in the United States (the former’s Muslim population is around 7% to 9%, the latter’s is more like 0.6%), and the European Union and eurozone issues have no direct analogue in American politics. Macron isn’t as wooden as Clinton on the campaign trail, and he’s not a veteran of the French political system the way Clinton was in the United States. (He was born two years before Clinton would become the first lady of Arkansas, and he was only 17 years old when Clinton, as the first lady of the United States, spearheaded the ultimately failed attempt to reform health care.) Le Pen, unlike Trump, has been a prominent political figure for a decade, and she is currently a member of the European Parliament.

As much as Macron dismissed Le Pen as a fear-mongering parasite, he went out of his way to acknowledge the anger and fear of her voters. Instead of the ‘spirit of defeat’ that Le Pen offered, Macron would offer a ‘spirit of conquest,’ painting a France that could stand up to its challenges and compete in the world, a France that could protect religious freedoms without playing into the hateful prejudices of terrorists. Macron may have had his share of gaffes throughout the campaign (and Le Pen brought up several Wednesday night), but he was smart enough not to call her supporters a ‘basket of deplorables.’

Unlike Clinton, who was far more fluent in the prose of policy and governance than the poetry of campaigning, Macron more gracefully attempted to bring Le Pen’s supporters into his vision of a France that wouldn’t retreat from the 21st challenges of globalization — just as he did last week at sometimes testy appearance as a Whirlpool factory set for closure, engaging with workers angry about their futures and suspect about Macron’s program (who had only minutes early cheered on Le Pen, who crashed Macron’s heavily scripted event with labor leaders to take selfies with workers outside).

Le Pen, for all her antics, isn’t Trump. She lacks the showmanship, the decades-tested talent to play to the cameras, the willingness to shock and cajole and even spout utter nonsense in such a way that no one — neither supporters nor opponents — can seem to turn away from watching. Le Pen just doesn’t have that same panache, that joyful, if often divisive, pugilism. That may be one reason she’s running 20 points behind Macron.

Indeed, every sign points to a Macron landslide on Sunday. But for at least 150 minutes on Wednesday, the campaign felt uncomfortably familiar to Americans who, on both sides, are still scarred from the most divisive presidential election in recent memory.

3 thoughts on “Le Pen-Macron debate echoes Trump-Clinton slugfests”

  1. A small correction: Le Pen did not “..claimed the former investment banker had a hidden ban account in the Bahamas”.

    She asked an open question (“I hope we won’t learn that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas, for example/J’espère qu’on n’apprendra pas que vous avez un compte offshore aux Bahamas, par exemple”), in a section where they were discussing Justice and after Macron remarked that she is the one, as well as her FN party, currently investigated as part of several judiciary procedures (both European and French), not him.

    The next morning, i.e. today, Le Pen admitted in a TV interview that she has no evidence whatsoever to make this assertion, while Macron mentioned in a radio interview that he has no offshore account whatsoever in any foreign country.

    Another example, amongst many others, that Le Pen has indeed similar tactics as Trump, i.e. sowing off-the-wall unproven accusations just to try to sow doubts in the electorate’s mind and to destabilize her opponent.

  2. Hmmm……..I READ THE COMMENT SECTION of an article giving immediate feedback on the French debate, composed mainly by sophisticated Brits…..and here is a compilation of their comments…….


    My bet is that many of the French are seeing it in this way, too.

    Read the comments……..

    “This was meant to be a debate between two Political Parties. It turned into a no-holds barred boxing match. Marine was cool, calm and collected. Macron was agitated, angry and aggressive, and struggled to be coherent, he was so irritated.
    Which one would fayre better during heated, in depth discussions with world leaders?

    It should be a one horse race from here on in. Go Marine!

    I bet Macron is now sitting on his wife’s lap, sucking his thumb, and crying on his favour blanket, while wifey strokes his head and whispers, “There, there”.

    “Macron was irritated, unprepared, agitated and openly hostile, while LePen was unflappable in her comfort zone. With all the persecution LePen has experienced in the past, she has become a confident spokesperson and strong champion for the people of France.”

    “She is very articulate and her life experience has tempered her soul in steel”
    “She was giddy and joyous the entire time!

    He was unhinged like a rabid animal!

    The contrast couldn’t be clearer!”


    “France24, desperate to spin Macron’s obvious loss into a win, is now reporting that Marine twice running her hands through her hair is a sure sign that she was rattled.”

    Another responds to this post…..

    “Sadly France24 is the globalist organ for France.”

    and another reponds to the same post…..

    “Ha ha! It’s just her usual mannerism..nothing important to be read into it ..
    She won the debate !”

    “Le Pen = Reasoned and coherent debate.
    Macron = Mud slinging and muck raking.

    No contest.”

    NOT ONE comment stated that Macron won the debate……


    “Marine was very Presidential.

    Macron behaved like a spoilt schoolboy.”

    “Some of the French TV channels now going into full damage limitation mode. Like after 2010 tripartite dates when Gordon Brown was left floundering.

    Macron’s body language gave him away, almost from the start. But it was what he said that will turn independent thinking voters away from him.”

    “Unfortunately most people get their 30 mins of news from MSM and Le Pen is called Far Right candidate Le Pen so people think she is a NAZI. Its very difficult for her to win.”

    another reponds to this post…..

    “That’s how tv debates help. She not only comes across as just a reasonable patriot, but also viewers, and voters, can see the MSM’s biased agenda.”

    “Marine absolutely thrashed Micron tonight. I didn’t expect her to inflict such a beating on the little boy.”


    “Did Macron actually say “Read my book”?”

    others respond to this post…..

    “he did, what a prat”

    “Yes, incredible!”

    Here is the funniest of the responses….

    “He kept his composure :D”

    Others respond to this comment…..

    “New Troll…. obviously, you weren’t watching along with the rest of us.”

    [Note: these are likely Brits watching the debate live, and thus this is bona fide, honest and well considered observers….. they are much closer to this election than we are…….you can bet that MANY French are seeing what they saw…….]

    “If he’s usually a raving maniac, yes indeed.”

    “In a box, under the desk.”



    “Macron is losing it and waffling.. Le Pen is showing that he is naïve..inexperienced.
    He’s unsure and appears to be permanently on the defensive..”
    “France, you have a gift: her name is Marine Le Pen. If you throw that gift away, on your heads be it.
    We in the UK (many of us, anyway) would give anything for a leader such as you have been offered.
    Don’t be stupid, vote for this lady, for your country’s sake, your children’s, your own sakes.
    Sacré cœur, La France.”

    “Yup… its not even fair. He is like a child.”

    “I am watching the French version of this as the interpretations are not quite 100% right. If anything, he’s been overly aggressive and not sure what he sniffed before coming on air as he has never spoken with this rage, as he usually spouts a whole load of nonsense while showing a certain lack of confidence. There is such evil in his eyes, it just makes me want to punch his lights out and throw my French passport in the bin if he becomes President.”

    “Threatening to leave the debate if she’s too nasty? Not sure that bodes well for France with him as head of state!”

    “Le Pen nailed it:”At least France will definitely have a female president next week: its either me or Angela Merkel!” LOL!!!”

    another responds to this post…..

    “That was the line of the debate. Says it all.”

    and another corrects the original post…..

    “What she said was “Either way France will be ruled by a women : Myself or Frau Merkel”.”

    Uh oh….this statement of Macron is NOT going to sit well with the French People…..don’t you think they have already had enough ‘transformation’ !?…….

    “Macron – “I want a France that is truly TRANSFORMED.” — OBAMA/MACRON!!!”

    “What an arrogant little name-calling (b word) this Macron is.”

    “10:20 and no report on the BBC about the debate.
    Must be going badly for Macron”


    NOTE, THAT THE PEOPLE COMMENTING ARE MAINLY BRITS. SOME watched the debate in French. These are sophisticated viewers, and they are much closer to the French election than we Americans, and likely have a better understanding of the French.

    My view from reading these comments is that Le Pen hit it out of the park, and Macron revealed himself to be the empty suit and Beta male, that in reality he is. Let’s face it, he is weird, marrying his high school teacher, who would be prosecuted as a ped o’ file in the USA today.

    My take away, is that this is going to be a much closer election than has been indicated by the ludicrous polls they have been running. The polls done to date have all been done whilst the whole French Media is hammering the French People, SHAMING them endlessly for even thinking of voting for Le Pen…there is NO WAY that these polls can be accurate.

    I am wondering whether it may be possible for Le Pen to win this, or at least do better than the ‘polls’ suggest, possibly MUCH better.

  3. Since when has politics been clean and not nasty? It can only get dirtier. To be a politician, one has to learn how to trade insult and provocation in good stride.

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