PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron ripped his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen on Wednesday during a televised debate for his ties to Russia and for wanting to deny Muslim women their right to cover their heads. in public as he seeks the votes he needs to win another 5-year term.
In their only face-to-face confrontation before the electorate had a say in Sunday’s ballot for the presidency, Macron took off the gloves.
He argued that a loan Le Pen’s party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank made it unfit to do business with Moscow. He also said the anti-immigration candidate’s plan to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would spark a “civil war” in the 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 top priority if elected France’s first female president and she ran as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She said Macron’s presidency had left the country deeply divided. She repeatedly referenced the so-called “yellow vests” protest movement that rocked her government before the COVID-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against its economic policies.
“France must be stitched up,” she said.
The primetime evening debate brought home the yawning chasm in politics and character between the two candidates once again vying for the presidency, five years after Macron easily beat Le Pen in 2017.
Polls suggest that Macron, a pro-European centrist, has a growing and significant lead over the nationalist firebrand. 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.”
The French leader was particularly scathing in his criticism of the 9 million euro ($9.8 million) loan that Le Pen’s party received in 2014 from the Czech-Russian First Bank. Macron argued that because of the debt, Le Pen would have his hands tied when dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, if she won on Sunday.
“You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia, that’s the problem,” Macron charged. “You cannot properly defend the interests of France on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power.”
“You depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr. Putin,” he said.
Le Pen bristled at Macron’s suggestion that she is indebted to Russia. She described herself as “totally free” and said Macron “knows very well that what he is saying is wrong”.
She said her party was repaying the loan and called the president “dishonest” for raising the issue. Le Pen repeated what she had said before: that her party went to the FCRB after French and European banks refused to lend her money. Loan has dogged his far-right party for years, as well as his ties to Putin.
Just hours before Wednesday’s debate, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny also raised the issue of the loan and entered the French presidential campaign, urging voters to support Macron and alleging Le Pen is too narrow. linked to Russia.
In a lengthy Twitter thread, Navalny said the bank was linked to Putin and “is a well-known money laundering agency.”
He cited no evidence other than his own investigations into corruption in Russia. But he argued the loan could be dangerous for France if Le Pen wins.
“It wasn’t just ‘shady business,'” he tweeted. “How about a French politician taking out a loan from Cosa Nostra? Well, it’s the same here.
Because she is trailing in the polls, Le Pen was expected to deliver a knockout blow in the debate. But she got off to an inauspicious start: Having been chosen to speak first, she began speaking before the debate opening jingle had finished playing. Inaudible because of the music, she had to stop and start again. She apologized.
Once the verbal contest began, Macron quickly put Le Pen on the defensive. He focused on her voting record as a lawmaker and questioned her understanding of economic numbers. Le Pen seemed more comfortable talking about topics that have long been central to her politics and appeal to far-right voters: fighting what she called “anarchic and mass immigration” and The crime.
Usually a powerful speaker, Le Pen sometimes struggled with words and fluency. She also sometimes lacked her characteristic pugnacity. She has sought in this campaign to soften her image and shed the label of extremist that critics have long attributed to Le Pen and his party.
Macron, on the other hand, appeared particularly sure of himself, sometimes bordering on arrogance – a trait his detractors have pointed out. He sat with his arms crossed listening to Le Pen speak.
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%.
In 2017, a similar debate dealt a damaging blow to his campaign, with a lackluster performance on his part.
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.
Macron said voters’ choice between the two was clear.
“I fight your ideas,” he said. “I respect you as a person.”