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French Presidential Candidates Meet In Final Debate


Now the clash of two drastically different visions for the future of France.


EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).


SIEGEL: The country's two presidential candidates met in a televised debate in Paris this evening. Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron argued for a France that is open and competitive with a future inside the European Union. The far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, derided Macron as a tool of international banks and corporations and said that she would protect French workers from globalization and immigration.

We are joined now by NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who's been watching the debate in Paris. And Eleanor, this was the only debate of the second round of the presidential election. It was pretty crucial for both candidates. What were their strategies going into it?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Robert, she's behind, so she had to come out strong and attack and convince voters that he's part of the system that has failed for decades. And she did that all night long. She kept trying to tie him to, you know, French President Francois Hollande and his failure. She called him Hollande Jr. at one point and said, that's a really nice little nickname for you. She had to make him look elite and arrogant. He needed to show that she's playing on people's fears and to discredit some of her programs because she has a lot of social spending. So, you know, he accused her of not having any idea of what she was talking about.

At one point - and he does know his facts and figures. He's allegedly got a mind like a steel trap. But he was not - he couldn't do tech - you know, his technocrat speak because sometimes he can just drone on. So at one point he said, Madame Le Pen, you're confusing telephones and industrial drills when she was talking about companies being sold. So you felt that he knew his points.

SIEGEL: But he's never run for office before, and he's been accusing her of making promises she wouldn't be able to get funded. I mean, did he - he's only 39 years old. Did he do well?

BEARDSLEY: You know, I think he did well. I've been watching this entire campaign. Now, she's a fantastic orator. Nobody can set a crowd on fire like she can. And he can be wooden. He's not as good. But one on one tonight, he kept his cool. And he knows his facts. So she kept trying to - for example, they got into this big argument about Europe. And she's sort of been waffling on do we stay in the euro, do we get out? And she said, you know, the people should have in their purse the franc because the euro made prices go up. So when you go shopping, use the franc. But we'll let our companies use the euro.

He's like, what are you talking about? You can't have two currencies. Do you mean like - so what would companies pay their employees in? And how would they do international business? And he showed how France was so linked to Europe and the world, and he talked about some of the great products. And he said, you know, at one point the - you know, that cheese farmer out there, he's listening to me and he knows I'm right.

SIEGEL: She had one line about Macron's pro-European policy saying no matter what happens this election, France will be led by a woman. It'll either be me or it'll be Mrs. Merkel...

BEARDSLEY: She did, Robert.

SIEGEL: ...Meaning the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

BEARDSLEY: It was amazing. I think she got flustered at that point because he said the euro makes us strong, more competitive. And, you know, she - and she kept - she tried to make him look like, you know, Merkel's little pet. You're going to go get the benediction of Madam Merkel. And that's when she said, you know, a woman's going to lead Europe and it'll be her or me, so yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, going into this one debate, Emmanuel Macron had a lead of around 20 percent in the polls. And the polls actually were accurate in the first round of the presidential vote there. Do you think that this event is going to change many minds ahead of Sunday's vote in the second round?

BEARDSLEY: You know, his detractors said he didn't really have a program. He had something to say to everyone. He was, you know, an empty shell. I think tonight he showed he had real programs. He called her at one point the priestess of fear and she just wanted to make people scared. And she had no solutions. She only wanted to scare people. He came out with real programs. He seemed to know his figures and his facts. He stayed cool. He corrected her errors all the way through. I think he's going to change a few minds tonight.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thanks, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "RATTLESNAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.