Eight out of the 12 French presidential candidates participated a television programme called La France face à la guerre - France in the Face of War - on TF1 Monday evening. Rather than a debate, each politician had 15 minutes to present their position on the Ukraine crisis, which has submerged the election campaign, especially with regards to how it will affect the cost of living for French citizens.
The three-hour programme hosted by TF1 was the first of three televised match-ups before the first round of the election on 10 April, when the pack of 12 presidential hopefuls will be pared down to just two.
Covering issues like relations with Russian president Vladimir Poutine, the role of Europe, energy and fuel prices, spending power or retirement; one by one, the candidates presented their reactions and propositions, but in what was an unusual format, they did not cross paths, nor did they confront each other.
Instead, they responded to questions posed by two journalists who were responsible for ensuring that the tightly controlled timing did not slip away.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to publicly reveal his policy proposals on Thursday, has refused to hold any debates with candidates ahead of the first round.
He is polling at around 30 percent of voting intentions, according to the latest opinion polls.
"What I'm trying to do in France's name is what all Europeans are trying to do, that is stop this war without going to war," he told the audience, adding that he was pushing for a ceasefire, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.
Defining a 'dictator'
When asked if he qualified Putin as a dictator, Macron responded: "I try to protect our country from the threat of an escalation. I try to protect our values and democracy in Europe. It is not by labelling or insulting Putin that I will be most effective," adding that he was keeping diplomatic channels open with the Russian leader.
Agreeing, for once, with Macron, leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon (France Unbowed) said there was little point in branding the Russian leader a dictator. Instead, he said his “first objective” as French president would be “to isolate Putin on the international stage” by getting China, India and others on board.
The only left-winger to be polling in double digits, Mélenchon vowed to go after Russian oligarchs and their assets while supporting the Russian people who defy Putin by protesting against the war.
Mélenchon remains however critical of NATO. He argues that the alliance's eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War is the root cause of the multiple crises unfolding in the post-Soviet world.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen (National Rally), who has spoken admiringly of the Russian leader and his nationalist approach until recently and had laughed off suggestions he might pose a threat to Europe.
Asked whether Putin should be considered a dictator, Le Pen said he was an “autocrat, like the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar or China”. She added: “The world is full of leaders who don’t respect democracy and this brings me no joy (…) [But] my obsession is peace."
'Facing a dictator'
Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour (Reconquer), who once said he longed for a “French Putin”, insisted he was against the invasion. He railed that it had taken the focus away from one of France's domestic issues of immigration. He also reiterated his promise to quit NATO.
The socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, for her part, said “there can be no complacency when facing a dictator” and claimed that Macron had failed to prepare the country for war by leaving it dependent on (Russian) fossil fuels and thus vulnerable to surging prices.
According to Greens leader Yannick Jadot, “[Putin] always was a dictator, he always promised death to those who fought for liberty and always promised war to countries that fought for democracy,” lamenting Western “complacency in dealing with Putin because of our dependence on fossil fuels”.
He insisted it was necessary to "track down Russian millionaires" and to push for an embargo on gas and petrol.
Conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse (Les Républicains) said it was a shame that "Europe had not seen this threat coming...maybe diplomacy would've been better, and we could have avoided it."
She also said she opposed the idea of a fast-tracked EU membership for Ukraine, adding: “We should not give Ukrainians false hopes."
Communist candidate Fabien Roussel was in favour of applying sanctions to Russia, but warned it mustn't create a backlash for ordinary French people. Although sceptical of NATO, he suggested some form of debate was necessary.
"We need to make decisions together. But we must be careful that this war we're seeing everyday on the television does not become a war in our pocket books," he said.
Marine Le Pen also shared her concerns on this front. Unlike other candidates, she has opposed Western sanctions on Russia, which she says will hurt French people’s spending power.
She proposed to lower taxes on fuel, a point shared with Hildalgo, who said "that this would allow us to reduce the price to 1€76 a litre instead of €2, and to cap it at this price."
Several candidates criticised the government's decision to knock 15 cents off each litre of fuel as of the 1 April, considering it "too late". Hidalgo went as far as to call it an "April Fool's joke".
Zemmour and Mélenchon also agreed that fuel prices need to be capped by the state. Mélenchon went a step further saying that a price cap should also apply to other goods such as food, school supplies and hygiene products.
For Pécresse, action needs to be taken but without overlooking the problem of debt.
Roussel said French energy giant Total should use its vast profits to help stem the surge in fuel prices.“Total must lower the cost of petrol at once,” he said, threatening to slap a 100% tax on the company’s dividends if it fails to.
Macron reminded the audience that the government had already set aside €20 billion towards increasing the spending power of French citizens, giving the example of the inflation rebate scheme.
In terms of the energy crisis, Mélenchon insisted on the "danger" posed by nuclear programmes when faced by conflict, while Jadot called for a massive effort to rework France's energy plan, vowing to phase out nuclear energy.
“We will install solar panels wherever we can to generate our electricity and coordinate gas purchases at the European level,” he added.
Other candidates, including Pécresse and Roussel, were in favour of nuclear energy as a way of enabling France to become more independent in terms of resources.
The four other presidential candidates absent from the show were not happy at being left out of the programme apparently due to their low scores in opinion polls.
Far left-wing candidates Nathalie Arthaud (Lutte Ouvrière) and Philippe Poutou (NPA), were not invited, neither were far-right sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Jean Lassalle - who said it made him feel like a " shitty, useless candidate".