Europe

French election gets dirty: Insults that marked a fierce debate

Emmanuel Macron (R) and Marine Le Pen on 3 May Image copyright Reuters
Image caption If looks could kill: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron pose stiffly ahead of Wednesday's debate

A dirty fight full of lies and half-truths summed up the climax of the presidential election campaign - the one-on-one debate that transfixed France on Wednesday evening.

The gloves came off amid a rapid fire of insults as far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron grappled for two and a half hours.

Here are some of the attacks that went just a bit below the belt.

Cheap shot and a smirk

This was a debate high on octane and often low on quality. And things got personal when the duo clashed over industrial policy of all things.

As Emmanuel Macron accused his adversary of talking rubbish, Marine Le Pen smirked, looked down at her notes and said: "Mr Macron... I see you're trying to play the teacher and pupil with me. But as far as I'm concerned it's not particularly my thing."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Emmanuel Macron married his teacher, Brigitte Trogneux - his stepchildren are actively involved in his campaign

Ouch. If you bear in mind that Emmanuel Macron married his drama teacher 24 years his senior.

Project Fear

The centrist candidate gave as good as he got, painting his opposite number as unworthy of the post of president. "The grand priestess of fear, she's opposite me," he said at one point.

But there was fear on both sides of the desk, as Marine Le Pen borrowed a phrase from the Brexit campaign across the Channel in the UK to enforce her push to leave the euro and bring back the franc.

"Enough of this project fear. Having a national currency has only advantages," she insisted.

Snake oil and pixie dust

It was probably the oddest moment of the night, and set tongues wagging, or maybe tongues getting tied up.

Try saying "poudre de perlimpinpin", in a debate and under pressure. Emmanuel Macron did it.

Image copyright Twitter/@kjalee

Terrorism is Marine Le Pen's strongest suit, and it was arguably his weakest point of the debate. But as he defended France's ability to control its own borders within Schengen - Europe's passport-free zone - he looked his adversary straight in the face and opened fire. "So what you're proposing, as usual, is poudre de perlimpinpin."

Not an easy one to translate, but it is either pixie dust or a fake salesman's snake oil. And it has gone viral.

Image copyright Twitter/@Ineskheroua

Mrs Merkel or me

Some of Marine Le Pen's fiercest jibes came towards the end of the debate. Her opponent was lying prostrate before Germany, France's union of Islamic organisations, as well as financial powers.

She accused Mr Macron of going to see Chancellor Angela Merkel to ask for her blessing because he would do nothing without her say-so.

"I'll tell you what's going to happen, Mr Macron. Either way France will be led by a woman, it'll be either me or Mrs Merkel."

Loads of rubbish

Several times Marine Le Pen made assertions that were later proved incorrect. Fast and loose? Perhaps. And often when talking about the euro or the EU. The cost of French membership or the state of the EU economy since Brexit.

The stock Macron response was "c'est n'importe quoi Mme Le Pen" - that's rubbish, Ms Le Pen. At one point he spoke of "bidouillage" - that she was mucking about with the truth.

Image copyright Twitter/@NidalNabhan
Image caption As the "knives came out", the hashtag "legrandnimportequoi" began trending

But his peak moment of contempt came when his opponent suggested that as France dropped the euro, big businesses could choose to pay in euros or in francs.

It couldn't happen, he said. It never had. It was "le grand n'importe quoi" - the complete load of rubbish of Marine Le Pen's plan. It became one of the trending phrases of the debate.

A night of mutual loathing

The insults came fast and furious throughout and the moderators were either unable or unwilling to intervene. For Mr Macron, his rival was no different from her extremist father. For Ms Le Pen, he was a puppet of France's most unpopular president on record, and a dangerous tool of global finance. Here are some of those exchanges:

Le Pen: "I hope we won't find out you have an off-shore account in the Bahamas," she declared at one point. She had no proof and admitted as much on Thursday. Mr Macron has rejected the insinuation as fake news and filed a lawsuit.

Macron: Marine Le Pen's ideas stemmed from the same fear and lies as those that had fed her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen and France's extreme right, he said. "But you're a product of the system you condemn because you live off it and you're its parasite."

Le Pen: "Mr Macron is the candidate of savage globalisation, Uberisation, job insecurity, social brutality, all-out civil war, economic havoc, the ransacking of France by big economic interests, of communitarianism - and all of it steered by Mr Hollande".

More on this story