Main French Parties Clash on Economy, Immigration in Debate

(Bloomberg) -- Leaders of France’s three biggest political groups clashed in their first televised debate on everything from retirement and taxes to immigration as they sought to convince voters that they can be trusted to run Europe’s second-biggest economy.

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With just days to go before the first round of the legislative vote, centrist Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, Jordan Bardella, the leader of the far-right National Rally, and Manuel Bompard, a representative of the New Popular Front leftist alliance, laid out their plans for addressing the country’s purchasing-power challenges, improving public services and the environment.

Frequently attacking and interrupting each other, the three leaders — all under 40 years of age — tried to highlight their differences. Attal sought to defend his government’s record, Bardella focused on his party’s tough stance on immigration, crime and security, while Bompard pushed the left’s plan to lower the retirement age and raise taxes on the rich.

The snap election, called after President Emmanuel Macron’s party was crushed in the European Parliament ballot two weeks ago, is becoming a key turning point for the country, with polls suggesting his group is set lose its majority in government. Most surveys show the far-right National Rally leading, with the alliance of the left in second place and Macron’s group trailing in the third spot.

During the debate on Tuesday, the three opponents constantly attacked each other’s premises, calculations and credibility. Attal said the others’ agendas “promise the moon” and “destroy jobs.” Bardella accused Bompard of seeking a Cuban-style economic model, while the leftist called his rivals dishonest.

The debate became heated when the three participants took on the subject of the retirement age, which Macron — in an unpopular move that sparked riots — raised to 64 from 62. While Attal defended Macron’s decision, Bompard vowed to reverse it, and Bardella said he would tweak it by setting what he called a “pivotal” age of 62 years.

Attal and Bardella pledged not to raise taxes, while Bompard said levies would be raised for people making more than €4,000 (4,285) a month.

They also sparred over immigration, staying closely in line with their broad political leanings. While Attal attacked Bardella for questioning the Frenchness of dual citizens, Bardella said he would “take back control of immigration.” Bompard reminded Bardella of his Italian origins.

“In this legislative election, we’re permanently focused on micro-measures on all the TV and radio shows, so I think people have difficulty seeing the main outlines, the big vision associated with their choice,” the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen told France 2 television Wednesday morning.

“Do we want as much immigration as today, for example, in that case you should pick the government, do you want 10 times more, in which case you should vote the Popular Front, or do you want a lot less, in which case you should vote National Rally,” she said, turning to one of the nationalist party’s key talking points.

The debate was the first of two such live events — with the next one slated for Thursday evening — before the first round of voting on Sunday. The second round is scheduled for July 7.

Le Pen’s party is forecast to win the first round with 35.8%, according to Bloomberg’s poll of polls on Wednesday, up 0.5 point. The New Popular Front would be second with 28.6%, with Macron’s Renaissance party and its allies in third place with 20.5%.

Most pollsters predict that the National Rally will form the largest group in the National Assembly but fall short of the 289 seats needed for an absolute majority. The latest survey by Odoxa predicts the party will get between 250 to 300 seats.

This scenario — where National Rally wins the most seats in the legislature but falls short of an absolute majority — would likely inflict gridlock on the lower house, meaning any ambitious legislation or reform would be difficult to pass.

Over the last two weeks, the New Popular Front — which combines Socialists, Communists, Greens and the far-left France Unbowed — and the National Rally have rushed to put together campaign pledges.

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Bardella has sought to assure voters and markets. At a news conference on Monday, he said he’d fund a reduction in sales tax on energy and fuel by cutting France’s contribution to the EU budget, closing tax advantages for shipping firms and boosting levies on the profits of energy companies.

This came three days after the leftist alliance set out €150 billion ($161 billion) of additional annual spending by 2027 that it said would be paid for through increased taxation.

Macron’s decision to call a snap vote initially sent markets into turmoil, though spreads on France’s bonds over Germany have retreated from the highest level in over a decade in a sign investors are becoming more sanguine about potential disruption.

(Updates with comments from Marine Le Pen starting in ninth paragraph.)

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