French pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates face off in first tele­vised de­bate

The Star Malaysia - - World -

PARIS: France’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion moves into high gear as the top five con­tenders face off in a TV de­bate that could help sway le­gions of un­de­cided vot­ers, a month be­fore they go to the polls.

Cen­trist fron­trun­ner Em­manuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are ex­pected to come un­der at­tack in the first of three de­bates ahead of the April 23 open­ing round in France’s most un­pre­dictable elec­tion in decades.

A to­tal of 11 can­di­dates span­ning the spec­trum from Trot­sky­ist left to far right are run­ning for pres­i­dent. Six smaller can­di­dates have been ex­cluded from the de­bates.

Ad­vis­ers to 48-year-old Le Pen, who is run­ning neck-and-neck with Macron in polls for the first round, but tipped for a sound beat­ing by him in the May 7 run-off, said she would tear into the “glob­al­ist” pro­gramme of her pro-EU ri­val.

For­mer econ­omy min­is­ter Macron, 39, will also come un­der pres­sure from con­ser­va­tive nom­i­nee Fran­cois Fil­lon, who will at­tempt to claw back votes lost to the cen­trist since he be­came em­broiled in a dam­ag­ing ex­penses scan­dal.

Polls cur­rently show Fil­lon, the one-time favourite, crash­ing out in the first round, be­hind Le Pen and Macron, fol­low­ing rev­e­la­tions about pay­ments by par­lia­ment to his wife and chil­dren and loans and lav­ish gifts from the rich.

The 63-year-old for­mer premier, who has been charged with mis­use of pub­lic funds, will at­tempt to shift the fo­cus to his pro­gramme, in­clud­ing the rad­i­cal spend­ing cuts he says rep­re­sent France’s only hope for real change.

Two men rep­re­sent­ing the ail­ing left, the So­cial­ist Party’s Benoit Ha­mon and Com­mu­nist-backed rad­i­cal Jean-Luc Me­len­chon, cur­rently run­ning in joint fourth, were also hop­ing for a boost from the three-hour tele­vi­sion joust.

“These elec­tions are a piv­otal mo­ment for the French peo­ple,” Ha­mon, a 49-year-old left­ist rebel who had strug­gled to make an im­pact, told a rally in Paris.

In a taste of what awaits Macron, Ha­mon laid into the for­mer Roth­schild banker, cast­ing him as the can­di­date of the elite.

“You’re un­em­ployed? Start your own com­pany! You’re poor? Be­come bil­lion­aires!” he said, al­lud­ing to re­marks by Macron, a lib­eral.

The elec­tion, in which sev­eral po­lit­i­cal veter­ans have al­ready been sent pack­ing by vot­ers fed up with pol­i­tics as usual, could hinge on turnout.

While the Nether­lands en­joyed near-record turnout of over 80% in its gen­eral elec­tion, polls in France showed only around 65% of vot­ers plan­ning to vote in the first round, which would set a record low.

Of those, a whop­ping 40%-plus say they were not yet wed­ded to any can­di­date. — AFP

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