A pivotal moment in the race for the Élysée Palace, Wednesday’s televised debate between President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen has been shrouded in controversy over the choice of mediator, with both camps accused of vetoing a journalist known for her pugnacious interviews. Watch the debate live on FRANCE 24 at 8:45pm Paris time (GMT +2).
Macron and Le Pen face off in a presidential run-off on April 24, which polls suggest will be a much tighter race than the contest Macron handily won against Le Pen five years ago. The two finalists will once again spar in a televised debate on Wednesday, with Le Pen hoping to erase memories of the embarrassing flop that ended her hopes of pulling off an upset in 2017.
Throughout the campaign, the far-right candidate has toned down her rhetoric and sought to convey an image of calm and composure. She is expected to play by the same rulebook during Wednesday’s debate, ditching the mercurial belligerence of five years ago in favour of a more “presidential” pitch.
Le Pen, who blamed her 2017 fiasco on fatigue, has cleared her schedule this week to prepare for the make-or-break debate. To avoid being unsettled, she has made sure she will not be facing the news anchor who has repeatedly rattled her in the past: Anne-Sophie Lapix, the star presenter for France’s main public broadcaster, France 2.
It helped that the incumbent president had no greater desire to face Lapix, whom he has studiously avoided throughout the campaign.
Le Pen’s grudge
While Macron has denied reports that he vetoed Lapix, his challenger has had no such scruples. “Marine Le Pen does not want Anne-Sophie Lapix to mediate the debate,” Le Pen’s No. 2, Jordan Bardella, told a private broadcaster last week, claiming the France 2 journalist was “unable to conceal her hostility” towards his candidate.
The animosity towards Lapix goes back to Le Pen’s first presidential run in 2012, when the news anchor pulled out a calculator to show her economic platform did not add up. More recently, Lapix poked a gaping hole in Le Pen’s otherwise successful attempts to sidestep her ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, recalling the large sums her far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party owes Russian creditors.
“How does one claim full independence while owing eight million euros to Putin’s friends?” Lapix asked a flustered Le Pen, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The nationalist leader, who has largely evaded scrutiny of her Russian ties during the campaign, blasted the question as “slanderous”.
“Back in 2012, Lapix caused a stir because because she was one of the first journalists to destabilise Marine Le Pen – it’s an old grudge,” said Corinne Vanmerris, a journalist and director of the École supérieure de journalisme in Lille.
“The media have long been uncomfortable dealing with the far right,” she added. “It took a while for journalists to find the right tone, treating the National Rally like other parties but without playing their game.”
Upsetting the Élysée
While France 2’s primetime news bulletin is hardly known as a paragon of inquisitive journalism, Lapix has introduced an incisive edge that was singularly lacking under her predecessors. Her trenchant questions, always delivered with a smile, have unsettled politicians and prompted backlash in the past.
“I smile a lot, apparently it’s a defect,” she said in a radio interview in 2020, citing frequent accusations that her smile was “sardonic”. That year she closed her Twitter account over the torrent of abuse her interviews elicited.
“Lapix is no more aggressive than others, but she’s tenacious. She’ll go after politicians or rectify their statements,” said Vanmerris. “Many politicians find it disturbing, but it’s her job.”
According to French media reports, the list of aggrieved politicians includes Macron himself.
The Élysée Palace’s dislike for Lapix dates back to a rocky interview with then prime minister Edouard Philippe in which she questioned the wisdom of doggedly going ahead with a first round of municipal elections on March 15, 2020, even as Covid-19 infections were spreading like wildfire and other countries had declared a lockdown. France itself declared a nationwide lockdown the very next day.
Macron’s office deemed her tone aggressive, according to French daily Le Monde, noting that the president has largely boycotted the channel since then. When France 2 contacted the presidency in December 2021 for an interview on Macron’s five years in office, the answer was a laconic, “No comment.”
Instead, the president invited France 2’s main competitor, TF1, a private broadcaster and co-host of Wednesday’s presidential debate, for a lengthy interview at the Élysée Palace.
Vetoes on journalists ‘must be abolished’
The final stretch of the campaign followed much the same pattern. Alone of all candidates, the incumbent refused to take part in France 2’s flagship campaign shows, but appeared twice on TF1. In order to comply with campaign rules giving all candidates equal media time, the channel was forced to broadcast segments of Macron’s one and only campaign rally – a special treatment many journalists felt added insult to injury.
“Mister Macron, why do you turn down France 2’s invitations?” representatives of the France 2 newsroom asked in an open letter to the president on April 4, noting the president had skipped “every one of the channel’s numerous political programmes”.
While no one has contested the appointment of another France 2 journalist – the equally assertive Léa Salamé – to mediate Wednesday’s debate in partnership with TF1’s Gilles Bouleau, reports last week that the candidates had preemptively vetoed Lapix’s name further angered the channel’s already disgruntled newsroom.
“This right to veto journalists smacks of a bygone era and must be abolished,” said the SDJ union of journalists representing France 2’s parent group, France Télévisions. “The choice of mediator belongs to the newsroom and the newsroom alone,” added another union, the SNJ-CGT.
Assurances by the group’s management that no one had been vetoed failed to dispel the sense that the broadcaster had cowed to the candidates’ demands. Neither did the Élysée Palace’s claims that it had no issues with the French 2 presenter.
“Vetoing Lapix or anyone else is petty and ridiculous,” said prominent TV journalist Jean-Michel Apathie, who accused “both Macron and Le Pen of behaving like little kings”.
Presidential debates have always been the subject of painstaking negotiations between TV channels and the candidates’ respective teams. Ahead of the 2007 debate pitting Nicolas Sarkozy against Ségolène Royal, the two sides wrangled over such details as the studio’s precise temperature.
“None of this is new, organising debates has always been highly strategic,” said Vanmerris. “But it doesn’t make it any less shocking. Newsrooms should be able to choose debate hosts themselves.”