France’s pres­i­den­tial con­tenders go head to head in elec­tion’s first tele­vised de­bate

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Kim Will­sher Paris

France’s lead­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates will take part in the first live de­bate of the bit­terly con­tested cam­paign tonight.

The con­fronta­tion, ex­pected to take up a two-and-a-half-hour prime-time tele­vi­sion slot, will chal­lenge the five first-round fron­trun­ners to out­line their pro­grammes on so­cial, eco­nomic and in­ter­na­tional ques­tions.

Marine Le Pen, of the far-right Front Na­tional, Em­manuel Macron, of the cen­trist En Marche move­ment, François Fil­lon of the op­po­si­tion right Les Répub­li­cains, Benoît Ha­mon, of­fi­cial can­di­date for the So­cial­ist party (PS), and hard-left JeanLuc Mé­len­chon of La France In­soumise (Un­bowed France) – in order of cur­rent polling pop­u­lar­ity – will take part.

Six other can­di­dates of­fi­cially ac­cepted by the French con­sti­tu­tional coun­cil have not been in­vited, but are ex­pected to join a sec­ond de­bate nearer to the first-round vote at the end of April.

Yes­ter­day, Ha­mon rose to the chal­lenge of giv­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign the kiss of life with a rous­ing ap­peal to thou­sands of sup­port­ers.

At a packed arena at Bercy in east Paris, he was given the sort of re­cep­tion nor­mally re­served for pop stars. The mostly young au­di­ence waved flags, cheered and leapt to their feet to whis­tle, cheer and chant: “Benoît, pres­i­dent.”

Ha­mon’s cam­paign team had hoped for at least 15,000 peo­ple at the venue as a show of strength af­ter a march or­gan­ised by the Mé­len­chon camp on Satur­day that was re­ported to have at­tracted more than 100,000 peo­ple.

In the event, the 20,000-ca­pac­ity sta­dium was full and up to sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple watched the 90-minute ad­dress on a screen out­side.

How­ever, Ha­mon, who is at­tract­ing about 13.5% in the opin­ion polls, has some way to catch up the first round fron­trun­ners – Le Pen at 26.5%, Macron at 26%, and Fil­lon at 18%. Ha­mon is par­tic­u­larly strug­gling with a dam­ag­ing split of the left­wing vote be­tween him and Mé­len­chon, who is polling 10.5%.

“Your pres­ence here is a mes­sage … every­thing be­gins to­day,” Ha­mon de­clared. “Every­thing be­gins with you. It’s not just the first day that will take us to power, but the first day that will be­gin the change in France. My de­ter­mi­na­tion is to­tal be­cause I know for whom I fight. Some have left the boat al­ready af­ter the first breezes – I will hold firm in the tem­pest.

“France is in a demo­cratic burnout … the left can win and in­deed must win.” He added it was not about the “des­tiny of a man … but the des­tiny of a coun­try”.

Ha­mon, 49, went on to out­line his anti-aus­ter­ity, pro-Europe pro­gramme, which in­cludes the in­tro­duc­tion of a min­i­mum uni­ver­sal in­come as a key, al­beit con­tro­ver­sial, mea­sure.

“Uni­ver­sal in­come was a pil­lar of the pro­gramme of the French Re­sis­tance. To­day we are tak­ing up that com­bat, we are car­ry­ing that flame. And we are not ashamed. We are proud of it,” he said.

He at­tacked the oft-re­peated claim that so­cial­ists needed to vote for Macron to block what he called “the xeno­pho­bic Front Na­tional dy­nasty”, say­ing tac­ti­cal vot­ing was “dan­ger­ous for democ­racy”.

At­tack­ing his scan­dal-mired ri­vals Le Pen and Fil­lon and the “par­ties of money who have their hands on this elec­tion”, Ha­mon said he would pub­lish a list of the donors who were fund­ing his cam­paign, “be­cause you have the right to know who is fi­nanc­ing who”.

His speech cov­ered glob­al­i­sa­tion, fi­nance, cap­i­tal­ism, ecol­ogy, poverty and hu­man rights, among many other themes, in­clud­ing the “recog­ni­tion of Pales­tine along­side Is­rael”, more for­eign devel­op­ment aid, dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism and sex­ism. “I will be a fem­i­nist pres­i­dent,” he promised. “I will do every­thing I can so the in­equal­i­ties, stereo­types, vi­o­lence will be, for the fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, a strange aber­ra­tion.”

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