French candidates avoid EU debate
By Eric Maurice
Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron launched their face-off for the French presidency on Monday (20 March) in the first TV debate between the five main candidates, in which the EU was barely discussed.
The far-right leader and the centrist candidate - who, according to polls, are now the favourites to reach the election's second round in May - spoke alongside conservative candidate Francois Fillon, socialist Benoit Hamon, and radical-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon.
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Le Pen mocked Macron for being "void" of content when he spoke and - while referring to his past jobs as a banker, civil servant and minister - denounced candidates who "indisputably defend private interests, not the interests of the French people".
Macron replied that this was "defamation" and dared Le Pen to go to court if she thought that he had a conflict of interest.
"I don't need a ventriloquist. When I have something to say, I say it clearly," he also told Le Pen when she said that he was secretly in favour of the burkini, the Islamic-style swimsuit.
The sparring between Le Pen and Macron led to the tensest moments in a debate that all-but avoided the issue of Le Pen's fake jobs case in the European Parliament, as well as the inquiry against Fillon for alleged parliamentary fake jobs for his wife and children.
"I may have committed a few mistakes. I have some flaws, but who has none?" said Fillon, who was charged with embezzlement last week.
He also said that if he was elected president he would set up a committee to propose measures to "moralise" politics.
The debate, which involved less than half of the 11 candidates allowed to run for the first round on 23 April, focussed on social issues such as education, migration and secularism, and on the economy.
Le Pen said she wanted to take back control of French borders to "stop immigration, legal and illegal". Macron stressed the need for a "more coordinated Europe" that would protect its borders and organise returns of migrants - more or less the current EU policies.
Fillon criticised the "bad policies" followed by German chancellor Angela Merkel - a political ally - during the refugee crisis, saying that they "pose a management problem" for Europe.
He added that he would set up "migration quotas" for France each year in a "democratic debate" in parliament. The quotas would concern economic migrants, not asylum seekers
Hamon, the Socialist candidate, argued for a reform to the EU's Dublin asylum system to create humanitarian visas, and he praised the "German model" that allowed asylum seekers to work.
Melenchon said that efforts to control migration were "small nets with holes inside" and that "we should treat [migrants] as we would like to be treated if we were in their countries".
'The EU bullies us'
Candidates discussed what to do with the 35-hour working week. Fillon wanted to abolish it and Macron preferred to let companies and sectors choose what was best. Hamon said companies using robots to replace workers should be taxed.
The candidates did not discuss French budgetary policy, which is under EU supervision, nor Le Pen's proposal to leave the euro.
"We haven't talked much about Europe," noted Macron at close to midnight, almost three hours after the start of the debate.
He said that he was "the only candidate who has been following our European commitments since the start", adding that "there are rules that have to be respected".
Fillon only said that he wanted France to "stay under the protection" of the European Central Bank, thanks to which it benefits from low interest rates.
Le Pen said she wanted to "free" the French people from Europe.
"The EU has locked us up. The EU stops us. the EU bullies us," she said, vowing to organise a referendum on an EU exit and "accept the result, whatever it is".
Melenchon and Hamon said that they would try to overturn EU austerity policies.
"Less US must be more Europe," Hamon said, referring to US president Donald Trump’s threat to reduce America’s Nato commitment.
Security, and the relationship with Russia, was one of the most contentious issues between the candidates.
The radical-left Melenchon and conservative Fillon agreed to "re-discuss" the issue of borders in Europe with Russia.
"We have modified borders, too," said Fillon, using Putin's argument that the annexation of Crimea was equivalent to the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.
Suggesting that a majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia, he said that he was a defender of the right of self-determination.
Melenchon said: “Is the border between Russia and Ukraine before or after Crimea? I don't know. We need to discuss it”.
He added that France should also "stay away from the problem the Balts have with their neighbour".
Hamon said these were "dangerous" positions and insisted that Russia had violated international law.
"I don't want a pact with Putin. I will not build our independence by getting closer to Putin," Macron said, adding that this was one of his main differences with Le Pen.
Le Pen, whose party has been funded by a Russian bank, did not speak about Russia.