PARIS — At the end of France’s contentious presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen faced off Wednesday in a televised debate marked by hostility and insult.
The event was intended as a final exchange between the two candidates left standing before the second and final round of the vote — a contest that, this year, could determine the future of the European Union.
But despite the stakes, the event rarely reached the level of the highly detailed policy discussions that typically characterize French political discourse. In a spectacle that mirrored the interactions between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the U.S. election campaign last fall, Macron and Le Pen went for the jugular.
“Your project is to live off fear and lies — that is what your father lived off,” Macron said to his opponent, scoffing across the table. He was referring to Jean-Marie Le Pen, who co-founded the National Front in the mid-1970s and who has repeatedly referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” of history. Throughout the campaign, Marine Le Pen, in an attempt to “de-demonize” her party, has struggled to shirk the association with her father.
For her part, Le Pen wasted no time in going after Macron, a former investment banker running under an independent banner, as the epitome of the financial elite that she, as an advocate of economic protectionism, has railed against for months. “I hope we won’t learn that you have an offshore bank account in the Bahamas,” she said to her opponent. “I hope.”
She also targeted Macron as the embodiment of the globalized, open society guaranteed by the E.U., from which she has said she would remove France if elected. In a remark that played on the concept of gender, which she has been careful to employ throughout the campaign, Le Pen said: “In any case, France will be headed by a woman — either me, or Madame Merkel.”
Le Pen has repeatedly used German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a lightning rod in the election, claiming that the latter represents the E.U.’s threat to France’s national sovereignty, now in jeopardy thanks to austerity and the migrant crisis.
“You are not standing up to Madame Merkel — you are with her,” she continued, probably referencing Macron’s visit earlier this year to Berlin, where he appeared alongside the chancellor and spoke in English — a sign, for Le Pen and other critics, of his cosmopolitanism.
Macron was relentless in his references to French history, and especially the Le Pen family’s role in denying it. Jean-Marie Le Pen is a convicted Holocaust denier and has been accused of committing acts of torture in France’s bloody Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962. Despite distancing herself from her father, Marine Le Pen recently denied that France was responsible for an infamous deportation of Jews from Paris in World War II, even though French police had carried out their arrests.
“What you propose is an exit from history,” Macron said.
“Madame Le Pen,” he said, “France deserves better than you.”
At the same time, the presence of a National Front candidate in a presidential debate of this kind was historic. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked pollsters by landing in the second and final round of the vote, Jacques Chirac, France’s incumbent conservative president, refused to debate him. The practice was standard even in basic television interviews: No airtime was to be given to candidates from an extremist, right-wing fringe.
“Faced with intolerance and hatred, no debate is possible,” Chirac said at the time.
In 2017, however, Marine Le Pen has been more than present on the airwaves as well as on social media.
“It’s time to put France back in order,” she said Wednesday during the debate. “It’s time to make the choice of France.”
Although the most recent polls still place Macron ahead in the race with a comfortable lead — roughly 59 percent of the vote — Le Pen is still expected to win 41 percent.