Macron offers target in five-way French presidential debate

French independent presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in Paris on March 2, 2017.


By MARK DEEN | Bloomberg | Published: March 20, 2017

Emmanuel Macron may be about to see the downside of becoming the favorite to win France's presidential election.

In a televised debate Monday night featuring the five leading candidates, Macron's standing in the polls, his relative lack of experience and his centrist positions mean he offers the richest seam of pickings for his rivals.

Multiple polls show that both Macron, a 39-year-old independent, and Marine Le Pen, 48, of the National Front, currently have the support of about one-quarter of voters for the first-round ballot that is five weeks away. And polls predict that Macron would emerge the easy winner in the runoff 14 days later.

"For Macron the stakes are incredibly high," said Jerome Fourquet, director of polling at Ifop. "He's the front-runner and his centrist positioning means he will be attacked from both sides. Most French don't know him well at this stage and they'll be looking closely at his ability to take punches."

Never before in a French election have five candidates confronted each other directly in a formal televised debate before the first round of voting. While a total of 11 candidates qualified for the April 23 ballot, six were excluded from the exercise on the grounds that they didn't command enough support. The two-hour debate is scheduled for 9 p.m. Paris time.

Ideologically sandwiched between Republican Francois Fillon, who has the backing of about 19 percent of voters, and Socialist Benoit Hamon, who has about 13 percent, Macron will be a juicy target for his more experienced opponents. The former economy minister has no established party behind him and no experience with the debate format. Only about half those supporting Macron are sure of their vote, compared with about 81 percent for Le Pen and 60 percent for Fillon, according to pollster Ifop.

Fillon, prime minister for five years until 2012, and Hamon, briefly education minister under President Francois Hollande, have spent their entire careers in politics. Macron only became a public figure in 2014, when Hollande appointed him to the cabinet. His bid for the presidency is his first-ever attempt to seek office. Unlike Fillon, 63, and Hamon, 49, he hasn't had practice in television debates.

The premium investors demand to hold French debt over its German equivalent has more than doubled since September on concern that Le Pen could win power and generate financial chaos by attempting to withdraw the country from Europe's single currency. Since peaking at 79 basis points on Feb. 21, the spread has fallen back to 68 points Monday as Macron's lead has solidified.

Le Pen and communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, 65, are both making their second bid for the presidency, also after a lifetime in politics. They are familiar to voters and have greater experience with the cut and thrust of campaigns.

Viewers will hear a wide range of positions. In addition to taking France out of the euro, Le Pen wants to raise tariff barriers and reinstate border controls to reduce immigration. Fillon, whose support has fallen after a graft scandal, wants to increase the retirement age to 65 and cut 500,000 civil-service positions. Hamon, by contrast, proposes a universal basic income for everyone; Melenchon says the French should be able to retire at 60. Macron, in the middle, wants to cut taxes while keeping to European Union deficit targets. He would also deepen European economic cooperation and expand EU involvement in defense and immigration.

They will be speaking two days after a man seized a soldier's weapon at Orly Airport before being killed by security personnel, in a nation already on high terrorism alert. On security and immigration matters, Macron faces difficulty, said Bruno Jeanbart, deputy chief executive of French pollster Opinionway.

"He's considered as lacking experience, a bit too young," Jeanbart said. "If for economic and society issues his novelty is seen as appealing, it's rather a deterrent for security matters, where voters want authority and firmness."

Le Pen has begun to attack Macron as if they were already facing each other in the second round.

"Macron represents no breach with the old order, no hope for change," she said at a rally in the Mediterranean town of Saint Raphael on March 15. "He's a sort of caricature of everything we oppose. The choices he wants to make for the French are not the right ones."

Hamon too took aim at Macron, who once worked for Rothschild & Co., in a Paris campaign rally Sunday. Without naming him, he said, "There is an image of France in this election that is not mine, that of a country that is a business. That if you are unemployed, just go get a suit."

Sylvain Crepon, a professor at Francois Rabelais of Tour University and author of books on far-right politics in France, agrees that Macron is Le Pen's preferred opponent.

"He perfectly embodies everything Marine Le Pen wants to confront, " he said on France 5 television. It sets up a battle between "one side that is nationalist, patriotic and sovereignist and the other that is cosmopolitan, globalist and European."


Bloomberg's Gregory Viscusi and Geraldine Amiel contributed.