Marine Le Pen, candidate of the extreme right for the presidency of France, will try to take advantage of the televised debate this Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. to go back in the polls, which are favorable to the current president, the centrist Emmanuel Macron. The debate, organized by the private channel TF1 and the public channel France 2 and which will be broadcast live by EL PAÍS, is the last opportunity to convince millions of French before the second round of the presidential elections on Sunday. Five years ago, Le Pen fared badly against Macron. It is her advantage now: she will hardly do worse.
“The debate is like the final of a Grand Slam tournament,” says Gérard Courtois, a veteran political journalist and author of the book, in Paris. Party of the countryside, a chronicle of the electoral campaigns under the Fifth Republic. “It requires competence, concentration, self-control. Never appear aggressive. The combat is tough. Because there is only one debate. And three or four days before the second round. There is no possibility of recovering in another debate, as in the United States. In France, there is no safety net,” he says.
The president, since the first round on April 10, has widened his lead in the polls. The Ifop institute registers 55% for Macron and 45% for Le Pen. According to Ipsos, Macron would take 56.5% today and Le Pen 43.5%. In the first round, with more candidates, the current president got 27.8% of the vote. The leader of the National Rally (RN), 23.1%.
Le Pen wants to forget the debate on May 3, 2017. She arrived exhausted from the campaign and with a migraine. She was confused in the answers. She was gesticulating. She looked for the papers among the messy folders on the table and couldn’t find them. She was throwing insinuations and unsubstantiated rumors. Macron, meanwhile, calmly dismantled her arguments. The current president won at the polls with 66% of the vote compared to 34% for his rival.
Sometimes you have to fall into the well to resurrect. That was that debate for Le Pen. He changed the name of the party: from the National Front, associated with xenophobia and anti-Semitism, to National Regroupment. He modeled an empathetic and close image to the French and swept the ultra legacy under the rug. And he drew a lesson for the 2022 debate, a true second leg: in recent days he has done few campaign events. The goal: prepare thoroughly. It is the crucial appointment of him.
“For me, the question is whether Marine Le Pen will be able to maintain this image and this posture for two hours before Emmanuel Macron,” Courtois says. “I’m not sure she’ll make it.” Unlike five years ago, this time there have been no debates with all the candidates before the first round. This is the only one. And, unlike the president, the far-right candidate has rarely argued during her campaign rallies on the streets of France with citizens critical of her. She hasn’t had to really fight to defend her vision and her program. She has not been seen on the ropes.
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The danger, for Macron, “is to confirm, before people who see him in this way, his image of superiority, arrogance, know-it-all,” Courtois maintains. And he adds: “It’s the problem of the first of the class: one part of the class admires him, but the other can’t take it anymore with this guy who has an answer for everything and who always gets away with it.”
The debate between the two presidential candidates will be the eighth in history. All of them, except for the one between Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin in 1995, which was quite boring, left moments and phrases that have been etched in the collective political memory. From the “you don’t have a monopoly on hearts”, which Valéry Giscard d’Estaing snapped at François Mitterrand in the first, in 1974, to Le Pen’s real-time disaster against Macron in 2017.
Another highlight was the 1988 face-off between President Mitterrand, who was a Socialist, and his Prime Minister, the conservative Chirac. Both governed in tense cohabitation and fought for the presidency. Chirac told Mitterrand: “Tonight I am not the Prime Minister and you are not the President of the Republic. We are two candidates on an equal footing, and who submit to the judgment of the French, the only thing that counts. You will allow me, then, to call you Mr. Mitterrand”. To which he replied: “You are absolutely right, Mr. Prime Minister.”
In 2002, when the far right qualified for the second round for the first time, then-president Chirac refused to debate the ultra candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father. It was the only year without face to face.
There is a debate that everyone, politicians and analysts, study with a magnifying glass: that of Giscard and Mitterrand in 1981. As now, it was the repetition of the previous campaign. As now, he faced the president, in this case the liberal-conservative Giscard, with a candidate who was for the third time, Mitterrand. As now, the president was a brilliant technocrat whose intelligence irritated many ordinary Frenchmen. Mitterrand was not Le Pen: he was an old dog in politics, more astute than Giscard, but his nationalization program and his possible alliance with the communists, in the midst of the Cold War, scared a good part of the establishment.
The memorable moment, and worthy of study, occurred when Giscard asked Mitterrand, convinced that he would not know how to answer: “Can you give me the number of the exchange rate between the franc and the German mark?” Mitterrand’s reply: “I don’t like this method: I am not his student. You are not the President of the Republic here, but simply my opponent”.
Mitterrand spent half a minute complaining about the question, while Giscard savored the trap he had set for him that was supposed to expose his technical incompetence. But then, like someone who does not want the thing, Mitterrand blurted out: “When you go from 1.87 francs to about 2.35 francs in seven years, it is not a success for the franc, not against the dollar or the mark. It surprises me that it leads to this discussion when it is proof that the franc, of which the official statements boast so much, is not doing as well as it is thought. Point and match for the socialist, who a few weeks later replaced Giscard at the Elysee and who would govern France for the following 14 years.
But all interpretations are a posteriori. In the end, whoever ends up winning the elections wins the debate. And a debate rarely decides a campaign, but as has been shown more than once, it can give the favorite a boost or sink the challenger a little deeper. Only in the event of a major error or accident would it be conceivable that it would cause a rollover. “My impression is that the debates confirm what the polls already say,” says Gérard Courtois. “And they confirm the stature of who is going to be elected or re-elected.”
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