French Election: Fierce Le Pen, Macron Debate Draws Lower TV Ratings

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Emmanuel Macron

The Front National candidate accuses the poll leader of selling off French companies and says he's friends with Altice founder Patrick Drahi.

In what was a lively, even fierce, debate, French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen verbally sparred for two and a half hours Wednesday night.

The debate was marked by name calling on both sides, while the two journalists selected to moderate were often unable to stop the candidates from exchanging heated remarks.

Ratings for the debate — for what is considered a pivotal election for the country and certainly one of its most contentious — were lower than that of Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy five years ago. The debate aired live on TF1 and France 2 from 9 p.m., garnering 15.15 million viewers, a 60 percent share.

The audience for TF1 was 8.14 million, a 32.2 share, and 7.01 million watched on France 2, for a 27.8 share. Wednesday's debate also aired on news channels BFMTV, CNews, LCI and Public Senat. Ratings for these channels were not immediately available.

The 2012 debate between Hollande and Sarkozy had 17.05 million viewers across the two main channels, for a 62.8 share. In that year, France 2 was slightly higher, with 8.96 million and a 33 share, and TF1 brought in 8.09 million viewers for a 29.8 share.

The 2007 debate between Sarkozy and Segolne Royal had attracted an audience of 20.06 million.

In 2002 the debate was suspended, as candidate Jacques Chirac refused to debate Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, due to his right wing views and denial of the Holocaust.

Thus this year's Le Pen-Marcon face off was already seen differently — a victory by some, the normalization of the ultra right-wing political party by others.

At the start, Le Pen accused the independent centrist Macron of being in favor of "wild globalization, the Uber-ization, precariousness, social brutality, the war of everyone against everyone," name-dropping the Silicon Valley ride-hail app that caused widespread protests when it launched in France and has been seen as driving down wages. 

Macron countered that Le Pen, daughter of National Front party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, was an heiress and has "prospered for years and years on the backs of French people's anger."

In one of her first shots out of the gate, Le Pen accused Macron of being in the pocket of multinationals when he was minister of economy by supporting the sale of telecom SFR to Patrick Drahi, the Morocco-born mogul who has dual French-Israeli citizenship but resides in Switzerland. 

"It's normal, he's your friend," she said. "You're defending private interests, but behind the scenes, there are 6,000 jobs lost."

Macron defended himself, calling Le Pen a liar and declaring that he was not a minister when SFR was sold, while Le Pen held steadfast that he was.

The point centers on timing: Vivendi sold SFR to Drahi's Numericable in April 2014 when Macron's predecessor Arnaud Montebourg was still in office and Macron was an adviser to current president Francois Hollande. The national anti-trust watchdog gave its approval in October of that year, and the transaction was completed in November 2014. By then, Macron was economy minister. He subsequently opposed Numericable's bid to acquire Bouygues, another French telecom company.

"SFR was owned by a private group called Vivendi. We are in a state where private property is respected, and it was the Vivendi group that sold it," said Macron. 

Vivendi, the French media behemoth that owns Universal Music, StudioCanal and CanalPlus, is owned by billionaire businessman Vincent Bollore. It sold SFR to Numericable, a subsidiary of Drahi's Altice, for €17 billion ($23.6 billion), making it France's second-largest telecom company.

Drahi is the founder of Altice, the multinational telecom that also owns Cablevision and Suddenlink in the U.S., making it the U.S.' fourth-largest cable provider.

Le Pen also took aim at GE's investment in transportation company Alstom. Macron called her "confused" and said she was conflating the two deals, and mocked the pile of various colored folders she had brought to the table where the candidates faced off.

Macron is widely seen to have won the debate. A snap poll conducted by news channel BFMTV (coincidentally owned by Drahi) indicated that 63 percent believed he was "most convincing."

Le Pen alternately laughed and fumed through the debate, while Macron held fairly steady.

TF1's Christophe Jakubyszyn and France 2’s Nathalie Saint-Cricq, the two journalists tasked with moderating what often descended into a quarrel as the candidates repeatedly cut each other off and talked over each other, were widely mocked in the media. A photo of an exasperated Saint-Cricq had become a meme on Twitter by Thursday morning.

The runoff election between the two candidates takes place Sunday.

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