French presidential debate: pivotal moment of the campaign

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Paris (AFP)- Wednesday’s live televised presidential debate between President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen is shaping up to be a pivotal moment in a tight race for the Elysee Palace.

The pair will exchange blows from 19:00 GMT in a clash that will be watched by millions of French people across the country ahead of the second round of elections on April 24.

Unlike in the United States, where Republican and Democratic candidates face each other at least twice, the French favorites only have one chance to fight each on live television.

AFP looks at past clashes in what is now a French political tradition, many of which are etched in French memories as turning points in political history.

1974: Hearts and Minds

About 25 million people tuned in to France’s first-ever American-inspired televised presidential debate, pitting socialist candidate Francois Mitterrand against centrist finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

The two were neck and neck in the polls, but patrician Mitterrand’s attempts to lecture his reformist opponent on wealth redistribution backfired.

A combo shot on May 2, 2017 shows six images from France’s second-round televised presidential campaign. -AFP

“It’s a matter of the heart, not just the intelligence,” Mitterrand argued, to which Giscard replied, “You don’t have a monopoly on the heart, M. Mitterrand.”

Giscard won the election.

– 1981: ‘The man from the past’ –

Seven years later, the two reunited, with Mitterrand eager for revenge.

This time, it’s the incumbent who speaks to his opponent, calling him a “man of the past” and asking him to prove his economic qualities by quoting the franc-Deutschmark exchange rate.

“I’m not your student!” Mitterrand opposes it.

Giscard suffered the ignominy of being the first French president elected after a single term.

1988: President versus Prime Minister

1988 produced the strange spectacle of a president confronting his own prime minister. Mitterrand and centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac were uneasy bedfellows in what the French call a “cohabitation”, where the president and the government are on opposite sides of the left-right divide.

1988 produced the strange sight of a president confronting his own prime minister
1988 produced the strange sight of a president confronting his own prime minister PATRICK KOVARIKAFP

Sparks flew when Chirac insisted on calling the incumbent ‘Monsieur Mitterrand’ instead of ‘Monsieur le president’.

“Tonight, I am not the Prime Minister and you are not the President of the Republic… We are two equal candidates,” Chirac said.

“You are absolutely right, Prime Minister,” replied Mitterrand. Mitterrand is re-elected.

1995: Return of the right

While the first three debates inflamed voters, the overly civilized duel between Chirac and former Mitterrand minister Lionel Jospin in 1995 drew howls of disappointment.

The one memorable line from their exchange was Jospin’s assertion that “it’s better to have five years with Jospin (he supported changing a seven-year presidential term to five years) than seven years with Chirac”.

Chirac nevertheless triumphed, regaining the presidency for the right.

– 2002: No debate with Le Pen –

In 2002, France was in shock after far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen overtook Jospin in the first round of the election to secure a place in the second round against incumbent President Chirac.

Chirac refused to debate with Jean-Marie Le Pen
Chirac refused to debate with Jean-Marie Le Pen Joel SAGET

Chirac refused to have a debate with Le Pen saying that “in the face of intolerance and hatred, no debate is possible”. Le Pen accused him of “eclipsing”.

Supported by moderates from right and left, Chirac crushed the former paratrooper.

2007: “Calm down!”

The first woman to run for president, Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party, in 2007 attacked then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy for his support for people with disabilities.

Sarkozy, who has a reputation for irascibility, refused to take the bait. “Calm!” he said to him. “To be president, you have to be calm.” Royal refused to concede the point, insisting his anger is “very healthy”. Sarkozy won.

2012: ‘I, President’

Five years later, the pugnacious Sarkozy badly needed to deliver a knockout blow to former Royal partner Francois Hollande to cling on to the presidency. The taunts flew. Sarkozy called Hollande a “little slanderer” and accused him of lying.

But it was the leader of the Socialist Party, who had campaigned as Monsieur Normal, who delivered the most memorable lines.

In a series of statements beginning with “I, as president of the republic”, he laid out plans to clean up the tainted political landscape bequeathed by his rival. Holland won.

2017: Erasure

The 2017 debate, between nationalist Marine Le Pen – daughter of Jean-Marie who made history when he qualified for the second round in 2002 – and liberal centrist Macron, is considered the most brutal of all.

Le Pen has been accused of drawing inspiration from Donald Trump‘s populist playbook by poking fun at Macron’s relationship with his wife, Brigitte. Macron for his part accused her of “lies”.

Polls show what could be a close race in the second round of the French presidential election
Polls show what could be a close race in the second round of the French presidential election Kenan AUGEARDAFP

Le Pen grew increasingly bewildered and rummaged through her notes when politically buff Macron took her to task over her economic agenda, including her plans to bring back the French franc.

Le Pen later admits that she “failed” the test. Macron won.

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