By Rhys Thomas
France’s top candidates faced off in a five-way debate last week in the first encounter of the 2017 election campaign.
The three hour, policy-heavy debate tested the mettle of the major contenders spanning both sides of the political spectrum.
The candidates on stage were Marine Le Pen of the Front National, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, Republican François Fillon, Socialist Benoît Hamon and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Whilst there were five on stage and a further six excluded from this debate, the main focus was on Le Pen and Macron who lead in the polls and are hot favourites to make the run-off in May.
The five candidates all had different hopes and expectations coming into this debate. For Le Pen it was to reassure voters alarmed by her programme and party history, for Macron it was to appear statesmanlike and show gravitas under pressure (especially as the only candidate never to have held elected office), for Fillon it was to try and find his way back into a race that not too long ago he was favourite to win before a string of financial misconduct allegations, for Hamon it was to resuscitate his stuttering campaign and get some polling distance between himself and the fiery Mélenchon who wanted to assert himself as the main candidate on the left.
The debate was broadly split into three sections with French society, the economy and foreign affairs all being covered.
The first real controversial topic that came up was immigration which has been one of the starkest dividing lines in the campaign.
Macron stressed his pro-EU credentials, and insisted that European Union states need to cooperate more to deal with the problem across the continent.
In contrast, Le Pen wants to reduce legal net immigration to 10,000 a year (it currently exceeds 200,000) and discourage those who want to come as she is only concerned with “the interests of the French people”.
For Fillon the solution is national quotas decided by the French parliament, but Mélenchon interestingly chose to emphasise the movement of people already within the EU – with a million Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese leaving their countries and Mélenchon identifying EU austerity policy as the main driver of this.
Secularism is a constant issue in France which strikes right at the heart of the nations’s very being.
Laïcité was a core concept in the establishment of the secular French Republic and blocks the involvement of religion in state matters.
It has proponents and critics from both left and right, with Islam and its place in modern-day France seeing laïcité being invoked to both defend and criticise the religion.
This is another one of Le Pen’s key themes, and she went strong on radical Islam being a threat to the Republic as well as her issues with Muslim culture.
The first direct clash between the frontrunners came when Le Pen raised the issue of the ‘Burkini’ (a so-called modesty swimsuit designed for Muslim women) which came to a head in France last summer.
She accused Macron of supporting it which saw the 39-year old become visibly agitated, shooting back “I’m not putting words in your mouth. I don’t need a ventriloquist”.
He then accused her of dividing French society and making French Muslims “enemies of the Republic”, stressing that they are French first.
Economic matters are always a frontline factor in any election, and it was no exception here.
The French unemployment rate currently sits at 10% (almost double that of the United Kingdom) and was a significant reason for the unpopularity of current President François Hollande who declined to run for re-election.
Fillon proposed more economic liberalism, giving companies more freedom to negotiate hours with their employees as well as ending the 35-hour work work (a sacred cow of the French Left). In direct contrast, Hamon wants to reduce it to a 32-hour week as well as introducing a universal basic income, perhaps the most radical economic idea of any candidate on stage.
Macron wants to keep the 35-hour week albeit with some more flexibility for employers, and also cut corporation tax which led to Fillon accused him of trying to please both sides whilst
Le Pen accused the other candidates of being “ultra-liberals” and set out her stall as an economic protectionist (which she described as economic patriotism), putting French business above all others including a 35% tax on products from companies that move factories out of the country to cut costs.
Mélenchon emphasised that the state should be finding jobs for those who are unemployed.
The final topic of debate was foreign policy and what role France should place in the world. Hamon advocated more European involvement in defence due to the twin dangers of Trump and Russia whereas Le Pen wants to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP to maintain France’s independence which Fillon blasted as unaffordable.
Macron continued his forthright pro-EU pitch which Le Pen admonished, saying “You’ve spoken for seven minutes, and I have no idea what you said”.
She continued “You haven’t said anything. Every time you talk, you take a little of this, and a little of that, and you never settle on anything”.
This part of the debate also saw the greatest difference between the men on the Left – Mélenchon called for the abolition of NATO and strengthening of ties with Russia with Hamon taking him on directly calling these views “dangerous” and emphasising that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was illegal.
Nobody struck a killer blow in this debate. Whilst there were some sparks between Macron and Le Pen the discourse between candidates was relatively subdued and even Mélenchon was more placid than usual (but still retaining his famed charm and pugnacity).
Le Pen’s attempt at avoiding discussion of her party’s EU policies was noticeable, and her positive mention of Brexit was scoffed at by the other candidates who reminded her that the UK has not yet left the EU and were yet to feel the full effects of being outside the club.
Fillon avoided taking too much flak and kept his faint hopes alive whilst Hamon slipped behind Mélenchon in the post-debate polls.
Macron came out on top in the post-debate polling and is firmly in the driving seat as the campaign progresses despite some nervous debate moments.
The next debate is pencilled in for April 4th.