French viewers think Macron won France’s presidential debate — yet far-right extremist Marine Le Pen is within striking distance

French viewers think Macron won France’s presidential debate — yet far-right extremist Marine Le Pen is within striking distance
Marine Le Pen in March 2017, Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, April 20, centrist French President Emmanuel Macron and extremist far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen held a three-hour one-on-one debate — a debate that 59% of French viewers, according to an Elabe poll, believe that Macron won. But France’s 2022 presidential election is close, and Le Pen’s critics believe that someone who holds dangerous White nationalist views is within striking distance of becoming France’s next president.

Le Pen is the leader and presidential nominee of the National Rally, formerly the National Front, and the daughter of the late Jean-Marie Le Pen — who was a Holocaust denier known for his anti-immigrant beliefs and a White nationalist agenda. Marine Le Pen claims to have disavowed her father’s views, vehemently denies being a White nationalist and has tried to soften her party’s image; regardless, some of her critics view her as a French equivalent of David Duke, and other critics are troubled by her affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During the debate, Macron slammed Le Pen for her history of praising Putin. Le Pen, however, tried to distance herself from the pro-Putin comments she made in the past — and she criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying she wanted to express her “absolute solidarity and compassion” with Ukrainians.

Le Pen is far from a mainstream conservative, yet a poll in the U.K. indicates that she is convincing some members of Britain’s Conservative Party that she is. According to The Independent’s Rob Merrick, 37% of Tory voters in the U.K. are hoping that Le Pen will win the election — which will be held this Sunday, April 24.

One troubling sign for Macron in the Elabe poll, according to The Independent’s Borzou Daragahi, is the perception that he is arrogant.

Daragahi explains, “The survey, conducted by the firm Elabe for France’s BFM television channel and L’Express Magazine, indicated that 59% of watchers viewed Mr. Macron as the winner of the fiery confrontation with Ms. Le Pen, who was seen as the winner by just 39%.... The debate stretched on for nearly three hours and covered flashpoints such as Islam, immigration, the economy and relations with Russia in the wake of its war against Ukraine.”

According to Daragahi, “Some 53% of voters said they believed Mr. Macron had the qualifications to be president as opposed to just 29% for Ms. Le Pen. More voters considered him more dynamic and sincere than his challengers, but half of voters in the poll regarded Mr. Macron as arrogant — seen as being among his greatest weaknesses ahead of Sunday’s elections.”

Macron defeated Le Pen by a wide margin when he ran against her in France’s 2017 presidential election. But she did win about one-third of the vote, and the 2022 election is much closer. Some polls have shown Macron ahead by only about 6% or 7%, and journalist Yascha Mounk finds it troubling that Le Pen is doing as well as she is this time.

Mounk, in an article published by The Atlantic on April 21, writes, “What is virtually beyond doubt is that Marine will get the largest number of votes won by any far-right candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic…. Some right-leaning voters who once considered voting for an extremist candidate like Le Pen a betrayal of the French Republic are now openly supporting her. Some of Macron’s former supporters on the center-left are likely to stay home because they just can’t stomach voting for him. And a number of far-left voters who ‘held their nose’ and cast their ballot against the archenemy on the far right five years ago are now telling pollsters that they will back Le Pen.”

Mounk cites “pessimism” as one of the reasons why Le Pen in France, not unlike former President Donald Trump in the United States, made inroads.

“A realistic assessment of the present state of western liberal societies requires a keen eye for the injustices that continue to characterize them, but it also requires an appreciation of the real progress they have made in recent decades,” Mounk argues. “When politicians ignore this lesson, and the pessimists start to dominate the public discourse, demagogues like Le Pen and Trump find it that much easier to win power.”

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