French President Emmanuel Macron ripped his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen on Wednesday in a televised debate for his ties to Russia and for wanting to deny Muslim women their right to cover their heads in public, as seeking the votes he needs to win another five-year term.
In their only head-to-head showdown before the electorate has a say in Sunday’s vote for the winner, Macron took off the gloves, arguing that his rival is unfit to lead Europe’s powerhouse. nuclear weapons and ethnically diverse and to deal with Moscow. He sought to paint Le Pen as fundamentally untrustworthy, accusing him of dishonesty and using faulty numbers in his campaign promises.
He also said the anti-immigration candidate’s plan to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public would spark a “civil war” in a country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
Le Pen, in turn, sought to appeal to voters struggling with soaring prices amid fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. She said lowering the cost of living would be her priority if elected France’s first female president, standing as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She said Macron’s presidency had left the country deeply divided and she repeatedly referenced the so-called “yellow vests” protest movement that rocked her government before the COVID-19 pandemic with months of violent protests against his economic policies.
“France must be stitched up,” she said.
The debate has driven the yawning chasm in politics and character between the two candidates vying for the presidency again, five years after Macron easily beat Le Pen in 2017.
Polls suggest Macron, a pro-European centrist, has a growing and significant lead over Le Pen, an anti-immigration nationalist, ahead of Sunday’s vote. But the result is expected to be closer than five years ago and both candidates are seeking votes among voters who did not support them in the first round of elections on April 10.
“I’m not like you,” Le Pen said as they clashed over France’s energy needs.
“You are not like me,” Macron said. “Thanks for the reminder.”
Compete on Russia
The French leader was particularly biting in his criticism of a loan taken out by Le Pen’s party in 2014 from a Russian-Czech bank. He said the debt meant that, if elected president, Le Pen would have his hands tied when dealing with the Kremlin.
“You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia, that’s the problem,” Macron charged during the prime-time debate that was to be watched by millions.
“You made a choice which obviously acted as a constraint on your political position and does not make you independent on this issue. That is a fact,” Macron said.
Le Pen bristled at Macron’s suggestion that she is indebted to Russia. She describes herself as “totally free”. She said her party was repaying the loan and called him “dishonest” for raising the issue.
Just hours before Wednesday’s debate, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny entered the French presidential campaign, urging voters to support Macron and alleging that Le Pen was too closely tied to Russia.
Macron puts Le Pen on the defensive
Macron emerged victorious in the first round on April 10. But Le Pen, who has gained ground this year by harnessing anger over inflation, has narrowed the gap in public support significantly from 2017, when she lost with 34% of the vote to Macron’s 66%.
Both candidates had prepared carefully for Wednesday’s debate. But Le Pen got off to an inauspicious start: Having been chosen to speak first, she began speaking before the debate’s opening jingle had finished playing. Inaudible because of the music, she had to stop and start again. She apologized.
Once the contests started, Macron quickly put Le Pen on the defensive. He focused on her voting record as a lawmaker and questioned her understanding of economic numbers.
In 2017, a similar debate dealt a decisive blow to his campaign.
Both candidates must broaden their support ahead of Sunday’s vote. Many French people, especially on the left, say they still don’t know if they will even go to the polls.