France’s face-to-face presidential debate on Wednesday night was a no-holds barred, gloves-off match-up between frontrunner Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen.
Unlike previous years’ presidential debates, this one was more boxing match than civil discourse — with both candidates speaking over one another, both constantly ignoring moderators and frustrating every attempt to reign them to order.
In the unruly — though often entertaining — face-off, the two candidates characterized each other on-air as serial liars, clueless on issues; wildly out of touch with French voters; as “an arrogant smirking banker” and “the high priestess of fear.” The clashes put some commentators in mind of the bitter rivalry between 2016 American presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The intense exchange between Le Pen and Macron ran well over its scheduled two-and-a-half hour length, with both candidates finishing strong but neither delivering a clear knockout punch. (Le Pen, perhaps, came closest with her one-liner, below, concerning German Chancellor Angela Merkel.)
A snap poll following the debate called it 63-37 for centrist Macron over his older, more politically experienced opponent. Macron earned another victory on Thursday, when he was endorsed by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Here are the six best smackdowns from Wednesday night’s debate:
1. Sniping began on social media even before the start of the televised debate
Le Pen, who arrived at the studio first, set the evening tone early with a teasing tweet suggesting her opponent’s youth, inexperience and previous political ties:
“If Mr. Macron doesn’t feel comfortable, he can always ask François Hollande to come and hold his hand. I won’t object.”
2. Once the cameras were on, however, Macron — who in the run-up had promised a “hand-to-hand combat” debate — came out swinging
“You are the heiress of a name, a political party, of a system, which has prospered for years and years off the back of the French people’s anger,” he said.
Continuing pursuit, he described Le Pen’s platform as one that “aims to live in fear, amid lies. It’s what’s fed your father and the French far-right for decades … We have to leave the system which helped create you. You live off it. You are its parasite.”
Stunned into a corner, Le Pen could only repeat, “Very classy, very classy,” at least six times.
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3. After one largely convoluted response concerning Le Pen’s economic policies, Macron, France’s former economics minister, flatly dismissed her
“That’s roughly three minutes Madame Le Pen has taken to explain her strategy to fight unemployment. She hasn’t one,” he said.
4. With his relative political inexperience an issue, Macron acerbically backhanded Le Pen, reminding voters of her current legal status
“There’s one thing I’m embarrassed about,” he smiled. “Not only am I a new candidate but there are no open judicial cases against me.”
5. A great deal of the debate centered on France’s membership in the EU — its continued engagement, immigration policies and the future of the Euro
It sparked Le Pen at one point to score the evening’s most retweeted remark:
“In any fashion, France will soon be governed by a woman, either me or Mrs. Merkel.”
6. Recognizing the debate’s way-overtime length, Macron in a parting shot suggested Le Pen “stay on television. I want to preside over this country”
Final campaigning ends at midnight Friday. Voters go to polls to choose France’s next president on Sunday.