French PM seeks to narrow EU poll gap in far-right TV duel

France © Thomas SAMSON / POOL/AFP

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and far-right party leader Jordan Bardella locked horns Thursday in a TV debate ahead of European elections, as the ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron seeks to narrow a yawning gap in polls.

The far-right National Rally (RN) is currently far ahead in opinion polls for the June 9 elections in France, with Macron's Renaissance party in a battle for second place with the Socialists.

The debate between Attal, 35, and Bardella, 28, who leads the RN's list in the EU elections, was marked by tense exchanges on issues ranging from immigration to foreign policy with neither man gaining a clear upper hand.

"We will in June have the most important European elections in our history," said Attal, adding that the world was at a "turning point" due to issues ranging from Russia's invasion of Ukraine to artificial intelligence.

Attal sought to paint Bardella as leading a party without substance that had no serious interest in Europe and a vision "of turning in onto ourselves and the end of the European Union."

Bardella countered: "I am not against Europe. I am against the way the Europe works now," calling for more "economic patriotism".

Polls have been making increasingly uncomfortable reading for Macron, who has had to fly to the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia to try to calm the violent unrest there.

Coming third would be a disaster for the president, who portrays himself as a champion of European democracy and bulwark against the far right.

The head of Macron's party list for the elections, the little known Valerie Hayer, has failed to make an impact and was widely seen as losing a debate with Bardella earlier this month.

According to a Toluna-Harris Interactive study for French media, the presidential camp is stuck at just 15 percent of the vote and in a dogfight for second place with the Socialists -- who are on 14.5 percent -- led by former commentator Raphael Glucksmann.

The RN, by contrast, is soaring ahead on 31.5 percent.

'Were you lying?'

The RN's figurehead Marine Le Pen, who has waged three unsuccessful presidential campaigns, has sought to bring the RN into the political mainstream as she eyes another tilt at the presidency in 2027.

Bardella, who took over the party leadership from his mentor, is key to Le Pen's strategy, a gifted communicator of immigrant origin with an expanding following on TikTok.

Both he and Attal, according to polls currently France's two most popular politicians, are seen as part of a new political generation wooing the votes of young people.

Attal sought to play on the turnarounds of the party of Le Pen, which has now dropped previous calls of a French withdrawal from the EU and sought to distance itself from the extremist rhetoric of the National Front (FN) she inherited from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.

"The method of the RN is to say 'we are against everything' and then in five or 10 years time when you realise you are wrong you say you have changed your mind. You were for Frexit -- and now you supposedly want to stay in Europe!" he said.

"The question one has to be asked is when were you lying? Was it then or now?"

"It's a caricature," Bardella hit back.
Turning to immigration, Bardella suggested that the EU's Schengen free travel space only be open to European travellers, an idea immediately rubbished by Attal.

On Russia, he accused President Emmanuel Macron of "pouring fuel into the fire" by refusing to rule out sending troops to Ukraine, while Attal alleged that at one time the RN had an "alliance of mutual interest with Moscow".

Seeking to avoid a potential pitfall in the debate, Bardella on Tuesday said the RN will no longer sit in the EU parliament with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) faction, indicating it had lost patience with the controversies surrounding its German allies.

The head of the AfD's list in the polls, Maximilian Krah, had said in a weekend interview that someone who had been a member of the SS in Nazi Germany was "not automatically a criminal".