Wednesday’s debate marked the first time a presidential runoff candidate agreed to debate a far-right opponent. Chirac in 2002 refused to debate Le Pen, noting at the time that “faced with intolerance and hatred, no debate is possible.”
The candidates leveled some of their sharpest exchanges while debating security and terrorism, a topic that has remained at the forefront of the country’s election following many deadly terrorist attacks that have resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people since 2015.
While Le Pen vowed to “eradicate the ideology of radical fundamentalism” by closing France’s borders and expelling those on its terrorism watch list, Macron called for improving the country’s cyber-intelligence and urged better European coordination, arguing that shuttering the country’s borders alone would not help.
Le Pen accused Macron of being “obedient to Islamist fundamentalists.” Macron, citing Middle East scholar Gilles Kepel, warned that Le Pen was playing into the hands of jihadists who want France to delve into civil war.
When asked about the European Union, Macron reaffirmed his pro-Europe stance, but added its institutions needed reform. Le Pen vowed to put France’s membership in the EU on referendum, adding that regardless of who won the election, France would certainly be governed by a woman—“either me or Mrs. [Angela] Merkel,” referencing the German chancellor.
The candidates also traded blows over each other’s campaign blunders. Le Pen accused Macron of insulting the French people when he called the country’s colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity.” Macron countered by criticizing Le Pen’s remarks denying France’s role in the roundup of French Jews during World War II—an act she blamed on the Vichy government, which she argued was illegitimate.
In closing, Macron derided Le Pen’s campaign as one of “fear and lies,” adding he will “refuse the spirit of defeatism and hatred which is that of the National Front.”
Le Pen got the last word of the night by once again referencing the unpopular Socialist president: “Hollande’s project.”
An Elabe poll immediately following the debate found that Macron had the stronger performance of the night, with 63 percent of viewers considering him more convincing; 34 percent thought Le Pen performed better.
The reaction mirrors what pollsters project to be the final outcome when voters head to the polls for the Sunday runoff—recent polls project Macron will beat Le Pen comfortably with 60 percent of the vote. Turnout, however, could affect the outcome. Some voters remain undecided, and recent polls project the abstention rate could stand as high as 26 percent (markedly higher than the 19.6 percent of voters who abstained in 2012).