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Whether She Wins Or Loses, Marine Le Pen Has Changed French Politics


Now to presidential politics of the French variety and a marathon insult-fueled smackdown in Paris. Last night was the final debate before the biggest presidential race in France in decades. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen threw some rhetorical punches at centrist Emmanuel Macron, who happens to be leading in the polls. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Paris. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: We know Le Pen is a French nationalist who wants her country to leave the EU and bring back the old French franc, the currency. What was her line of attack against Macron last night?

LANGFITT: Well, Macron's completely different than she is in a lot of ways. He's a 39-year-old former investment banker, used to be the economy minister in the current government. And what she tried to do was portray him as this soulless citizen of the world and the kind of guy who was going to leave France's most vulnerable citizens to fend for themselves. And here's one of her lines of attack.


MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) Lowering the unemployment rate three points would create 25 billion euros in revenue for the state, except you are incapable of doing that because our economy is submitted to savage globalization, open borders and competition where it's everyone against everyone.

MARTIN: How did Macron counterpunch to that?

LANGFITT: Well, he - in the beginning, she was really clobbering him. And she was hitting with a lot of tough questions and smiling a lot. And then later on - this was two-and-a-half hours - he started to come back. He basically said Le Pen is this reckless extremist who is going to crash the country's economy and that she has this plan to deport suspected Islamic radicals. And then that's just going to divide French society even more. And here was one of his tougher lines.


EMMANUEL MACRON: (Through interpreter) What Islamic terrorists want, the trap that's awaiting us, is what you will bring - civil war. The biggest hope they have is for Madam Le Pen to come to power in France.

MARTIN: Seems like, Frank, we've heard this kind of debate a lot this year.

LANGFITT: Indeed. You know, in fact, that argument you just heard is the same argument that Hillary Clinton made against Donald Trump in last year's campaign. And French voters here face the sort of same stark choice that Americans and British voters faced in 2016. Reminds me a lot of the campaign that I covered back in the United Kingdom, when they were voting to get out of the European Union and, of course, the Trump-Clinton race, as I was mentioning.

A difference - Le Pen is actually much farther to the right than Donald Trump. And Macron, he's a newcomer. And he doesn't have the experience or even the baggage certainly that Clinton had.

MARTIN: So the polls show Macron winning fairly handily on Sunday at the election. How are Le Pen supporters responding to those polls?

LANGFITT: They're actually pretty upbeat. I was in Northern France yesterday. It's former coal country, high unemployment, definitely Le Pen country. And I was having lunch with this guy named Guillaume Flocan (ph). He's - 24-year-old economic student and a hardcore Le Pen supporter. And he was actually speaking very optimistically even if she loses.

GUILLAUME FLOCAN: If we lose with 40 percent, it's incredible. It's amazing because nobody can expect that Marine Le Pen realize a big score like that.

MARTIN: So he's saying losing with 40 percent is still a victory. Is that so?

LANGFITT: Actually, he's right. I think if you look at the big picture here - you look at French politics and Western politics and where they've been heading, Le Pen's National Front party spent decades as a political pariah here. She's been campaigning to normalize her politics.

If she can score pretty well, she can very much claim that the National Front has become a mainstream political party and basically mark a big shift in the political landscape. And if she loses, you know, a lot of political observers say she's really playing the long game. She didn't expect to win in 2017. She's actually aiming for the next election in 2022.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting on the French presidential election, takes place Sunday. He joined us from Paris. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.