In the three-and-a-half hour televised debate between five leading French presidential candidates on Monday night (March 21), what is arguably the biggest political minefield was barely discussed: the future of the European Union.
Opponents of the EU have been salivating over the prospect of the far right’s Marine Le Pen winning the presidency, given her promise to hold a referendum on France’s EU membership that could swiftly undo the whole project. Europhiles, meanwhile, have been banking on centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and his staunchly pro-EU agenda.
And yet, little of substance was said on the matter, despite the length of the debate. The best the candidates could muster came down to rhetorical mentions.
Le Pen, for instance, derided the bloc in her opening statement, saying she wanted to be “the president of the French republic,” not to “administer what has become a region, a vague region of the European Union.” Alluding to her top competitor Macron, who had met with German chancellor Angela Merkel the previous week, Le Pen said she didn’t “want to be Mrs Merkel’s vice chancellor.”
While Le Pen spoke broadly of a need for ”economic patriotism” and higher taxes on companies that outsource jobs, other candidates didn’t challenge her proposed duties on foreign goods, which contravene EU law.
She went on to make fleeting comments about how the euro had hurt the French economy, and that Brexit had boosted Britain’s (which prompted laughter from the audience). The European Commission ended up being the one to fact-check her claim on Twitter, asserting that, “No, the euro is not responsible of the weakness of French competitiveness.”
The two left-leaning candidates, Benoît Hamon, the candidate for the deeply unpopular governing Socialist Party, and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, had very little to say about the EU. When discussing migration, Hamon said France should respect its commitments to the EU when it comes to accepting refugees.
It took Macron nearly three hours of debating to finally remark that, “We haven’t talked much about Europe.” He then declared himself “the only candidate who has been following our European commitments since the start.” But there it ended, with Le Pen’s fitting retort: “You have said nothing.”