French presidential candidates grilled over Ukraine war in faux debate

Monday night's programme gathered eight of the 12 candidates running for the French presidency. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron and his seven leading challengers in the upcoming presidential election were quizzed on the war in Ukraine and Europe's looming energy crisis on Monday night in the first televised match-up ahead of the April 10 vote.

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The three-hour programme hosted by TF1 was the first of three televised match-ups before the first round of the election on April 10, when the pack of 12 presidential hopefuls will be pared down to just two.

The private broadcaster had initially planned to host a traditional debate between the rival candidates, before looking for an alternative format over Macron’s refusal to spar with his challengers and concerns about how to manage a shouting match between the eleven others.

In the end, the incumbent agreed to a format in which candidates spoke in turn, provided they didn’t cross paths – not even for a group photo.

For sake of brevity, TF1 opted to ditch four “minor” candidates languishing at the back of the pack, though some are actually polling neck and neck with the Socialists’ struggling nominee, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Predictably, the four left out, including leftist Philippe Poutou, decried a parody of democracy.

  • A campaign upended by war

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed world affairs to the forefront of France’s presidential race, upending a campaign in which three of the five leading candidates are staunch critics of the US-led transatlantic alliance.

The war has presented France’s mainstream parties – whose candidates are struggling in polls – with a fresh opportunity to round on some of their more radical rivals and accuse them of cosying up to Russia's Vladimir Putin while vilifying NATO.   

>> Ukraine war puts France’s NATO-sceptic presidential candidates in a tight spot

Criticism has focused on a trio of presidential hopefuls – far-right rivals Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, and leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon – who are polling in second, third and fourth place, respectively, and are frequently lumped together for their “sovereignist” rhetoric despite being at odds on many issues.

The two far-right leaders have spoken admiringly of the Russian leader’s unsparingly nationalist approach, in Zemmour’s case even longing for a “French Putin”. Le Pen has previously laughed off suggestions that Putin posed a threat to Europe, saying that NATO had outlived its usefulness.

While Mélenchon has no such affinity with the strongman in the Kremlin, he has in the past joined his rivals in belittling the threat from Moscow even as he blamed NATO for stirring trouble.

  • Anne Hidalgo: ‘No complacency with a dictator’

First to speak, Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo reiterated her criticism of Mélenchon, saying “there can be no complacency when facing a dictator”. The mayor of Paris, who is polling at a lowly 2.5%, has previously said that Mélenchon’s past comments on the Russian president “disqualify” him from the French presidency.

Hidalgo also had a go at the incumbent president, claiming Macron had failed to prepare the country for war by leaving it dependent on (Russian) fossil fuels and thus vulnerable to surging prices. France is actually one of the European countries least dependent on Russian gas, though French motorists are at the mercy of soaring petrol prices like their European peers.

Addressing domestic issues, the struggling Socialist candidate also slammed Macron’s plans to raise France’s legal retirement age to 65, from the current 62.

  • Marine Le Pen: No to the sanctions boomerang

Next up was Marine Le Pen, who got to speak for a lot longer than Hidalgo under bizarre rules that gave candidates more or less time based on their polling figures, the number of MPs in their parties and a host of other criteria.

The 2017 runner-up has differed from many rivals by opposing Western sanctions on Russia, which she says will hurt French people’s spending power. She repeated that message on TF1, stressing the need to “protect” the French from the war’s economic fallout.

“I don’t want gas prices to rise eightfold and oil prices to double. I don’t want the French to commit hara-kiri,” said the far-right leader, warning that economic consequences of the war could be “a hundred times worse than the pandemic”.

Le Pen’s ratings have risen since the Russian invasion of Ukraine – somewhat bizarrely, considering her past comments on Putin. Unlike Mélenchon, the far-right leader has spoken admiringly of the Russian leader, until recently, and laughed off suggestions he might pose a threat to Europe. She even put a picture of her shaking hands with Putin at the Kremlin on her campaign leaflets (some of which have since been sent to the shredder).

However, her insistence on the impact of sanctions on French consumers has struck a chord with many voters in poorer small towns and rural areas where her support is strongest.

Asked whether Putin should be considered a “dictator”, Le Pen said he was an “autocrat, like the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar or China”. She added: “The world is full of leaders who don’t respect democracy and this brings me no joy (…) [But] my obsession is peace."

  • Valérie Pécresse: No EU membership for Ukraine

Valérie Pécresse, the programme’s third speaker, said Europe had been “naïve” in its failure to anticipate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “despite the many American (and British) warnings” of an imminent attack.

The candidate for the conservative Les Républicains also criticised the choice of the gilded Palace of Versailles, built for the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France, to host the EU’s recent crisis talks on the war (though the summit had been planned long before the war started in late February).

Pécresse, who has slipped behind her rivals on the far right amid an underwhelming campaign, said she opposed the idea – floated by some of her rivals – of fast-tracked EU membership for Ukraine, adding: “We should not give Ukrainians false hopes."

She also called for greater investment in nuclear energy to protect France from volatile fossil fuel prices, scolding Macron for having shut the country’s oldest reactors at the Fessenheim nuclear plant (which other presidents before him had already promised to decommission).

In a backhanded compliment aimed at the incumbent president, she lauded his recent pledge to raise the retirement age to 65 (just like her), quipping: “I am glad Emmanuel Macron reads my programme."

  • Yannick Jadot: ‘Putin always was a dictator’

While most candidates balked at calling Putin a dictator, Green Party nominee Yannick Jadot, the next up, had no such qualms.

“[Putin] always was a dictator, he always promised death to those who fought for liberty and always promised war to countries that fought for democracy,” said the EU lawmaker, lamenting Western “complacency in dealing with Putin because of our dependence on fossil fuels”.

Jadot, who is polling at around 5%, promised to “track down (Russian) oligarchs” and reduce France’s gas consumption by “up to 15%” in order to squeeze Russia’s economy.   

“We will install solar panels wherever we can to generate our electricity and coordinate gas purchases at the European level,” added the Green candidate, who has vowed to phase out nuclear energy.

French presidential election © France 24
  • Emmanuel Macron: ‘Stop the war without waging war’

Defending his record, Macron said he had “tried until the very end” to prevent Russia’s invasion through diplomacy. He said he still hoped to “stop the war without waging war”.

Asked whether Putin should be considered a dictator, he said: “I try to protect our country from the threat of an escalation, I try to protect our values and democracy in Europe, it is not by labelling or insulting Putin that I will be most effective.”

Macron has enjoyed a bump in the polls since the start of the war, with voters appearing to reward the incumbent for his frantic diplomatic efforts – which notably saw him plead for peace during marathon talks with his Russian counterpart at a now-famously gargantuan table.

>> Spirited, disruptive, impotent? Five years of Macron on the international stage

The French president defended Europe’s response to the conflict, pointing to the unprecedented sanctions imposed on Moscow. He said even tougher measures remained on the cards.

  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon: Reaching out to China

Agreeing, for once, with Macron, leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon said there was little point in branding the Russian leader a dictator. Instead, he said his “first objective” as French president would be “to isolate Putin on the international stage” by getting China, India and others on board.

The only left-winger to be polling in double digits, Mélenchon vowed to go after Russian oligarchs and their assets, while supporting the Russian people who defy Putin by protesting against the war.  

He also called for a “spectacular initiative: to convene an extraordinary summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe” in order to broker peace in Ukraine.

While condemning Putin’s invasion, the leader of the France insoumise (France Unbowed) party has stuck to his criticism of NATO in recent weeks. He argues that NATO’s eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War is the root cause of the multiple crises unfolding in the post-Soviet world. 

  • Éric Zemmour: Ukraine war has hijacked the campaign

“Mr Zemmour? He’s going to bite me!” joked Mélenchon as he left the stage, followed seconds later by the far-right polemicist, who was promptly quizzed about his past statements praising the Russian leader (he once said he longed for a “French Putin”).

“I immediately condemned the invasion of Ukraine,” Éric Zemmour protested, before lamenting the fact that the war had hijacked the presidential campaign and diverted attention from what he regards as the real threat to France: immigration.

The war in Ukraine “must not overshadow the fundamental crisis facing the French nation, which is the ‘Great Replacement’”, said the former pundit, referring to the widely debunked conspiracy theory according to which white Christian populations are being intentionally replaced by non-white immigrants.

Zemmour, who has two convictions for hate speech and is appealing a third, ruled out any prospect of a common European defence policy, vowing instead to hike France’s defence budget and build a second aircraft carrier. He also reiterated his pledge to quit NATO’s integrated military command.

  • Fabien Roussel: No rush to quit NATO

Another NATO sceptic, Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel appeared to temper his eagerness to quit the North Atlantic Alliance, calling instead for a debate on “building an alternative collective security framework for Europe”.

Roussel – who is polling at around 4%, the Communists’ highest level in decades – said French energy giant Total should use its vast profits to help stem the surge in fuel prices. “Total must lower the cost of petrol at once,” he said, threatening to slap a 100% tax on the company’s dividends if it fails to.  

>> Let them eat steak: French Communists bounce back with recipe for ‘happy days’