Ultimately, the nearly three-hour televised encounter may not significantly help or hurt either contestant, meaning the race may remain close until the finish. Le Pen has fallen slightly in the opinion polls in recent days and is about eight percentage points behind Macron.
The state of the French economy and the fallout from the war in Ukraine were at the center of the debate.
“You depend on Russian leaders and you depend on Mr. Putin,” Macron charged, noting Le Pen’s past admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia,” he said, referring to a former loan to Le Pen from a Russian state bank.
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“I am an absolutely and totally free woman,” Le Pen replied.
Le Pen sought to position himself as a staunch supporter of Ukraine, declaring his “solidarity and absolute compassion for the Ukrainian people”. But she said she remained opposed to banning Russian oil and gas in response to the war, arguing it would hurt the French more than Russia.
In her opening speech, she underlined what has been the central argument of her campaign: that she is closer than Macron to the concerns of the French.
“I know our people well,” she said, “and for the past five years I have had to watch them suffer and worry.” She described her ideas as “common sense”.
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Overall, she appeared more at ease than in 2017, even when the heavily scripted and timed debate began with a false start: Le Pen began speaking while the opening music was still playing. She ignored the trial and error with a laugh and began by pledging to be the president of “justice”, “national fraternity” and “restored harmony between the French”.
“Marine Le Pen needed to correct her image of incompetence and aggressiveness. Her limits were still obvious, but she knew how to remain more serene, calmer. This in itself is a real victory for her,” said Alexis Lévrier, media historian at the University of Reims.
Macron had perhaps the biggest challenge. His starting position has left him more exposed to criticism than five years ago. He was to defend his record and highlight potential weaknesses, including his controversial anti-immigration proposals. But he also had to distinguish between refuting his critics and not appearing downright dismissive of the themes that matter to voters.
He didn’t always succeed.
At various points, Macron accused Le Pen of “mixing everything up” and “talking nonsense”. He interjected, “Are you kidding me or what?
Nathalie Schuck, a political journalist at the French magazine Le Point, told France 2 TV channel that Macron’s body language, particularly his tendency to stare at moderators during the debate, could have come across as “disrespectful to his opponent. “. ”
“That’s problematic,” she said, arguing that “some of the voters who turn to [Le Pen’s] candidacy are people who themselves do not feel respected. So the fact that he looked away, symbolically, it wasn’t great.
Macron “cut her several times, and he often gave the impression of making fun of her, of not taking her seriously,” Lévrier said.
“In short, (Macron) has largely dominated the debate on the substance, but less clearly than in 2017. And above all, he has undoubtedly lost it on form, by failing to correct the negative image that part of the country has it. said Levrier.
Macron tried to strike a conciliatory tone in his final statement.
“I am fighting against your ideas, I am fighting against the party which is yours, and its history and its political positioning, but I respect you as a person, and I want to convince all those who have been able to follow you”, has he declared.
He called the election a referendum on Europe, the environment and French values – topics that may resonate with left-leaning voters whose choice to support one of the candidates or abstain could make overturn the elections.
Le Pen has sought to moderate his image and positions in this campaign. Macron suggested voters shouldn’t buy it.
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“When we put your project together brick by brick, it’s a project to get out of the EU, even if it doesn’t say so explicitly,” he said at one point. And to another: “Your project is very transparent, you are a [climate change skeptic].”
Le Pen responded to this by calling him a “climate hypocrite”.
She was most critical of his performance on the economy.
Even though the French economy has emerged more robust of the pandemic than those of some of his neighbours, Le Pen’s campaign has gained momentum by echoing the sentiment that economic growth has not benefited most citizens. Pre-existing concerns about rising inflation, energy prices and the cost of living have been further amplified by the impact of the war in Ukraine.
“The ‘Mozart of finance’ has a very bad record on the economy and an even worse record on social issues,” said Le Pen, referring to the nickname of Macron, who was once an investment banker.
“The ‘covid debt’ is 600 billion euros, I fully support it,” Macron said in his defense, adding that his government had helped restaurant owners and small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic with state-guaranteed loans and other measures.
Macron has extension proposal some of its current policies, including a cap on electricity and natural gas prices that has been presented last year. He also promised additional tax cuts and more spending on green energy if he wins a second five-year term. Macron presented his proposals as more realistic than those of Le Pen. The far-right leader wants to abolish income tax for anyone under 30, reduce energy taxes and a lot basic productsand go on a government spending spree.
Proposed changes to France’s retirement age were also discussed during Wednesday’s debate. Macron has proposed raising it from 62 to 64 or 65 – an “unbearable injustice”, according to Le Pen, who wants to keep the current age and lower it for some workers.
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The candidate teams had haggled over all the details of the debate — from the room temperature to the lighting and the size of the table – with the broadcasters in charge of the debate, under the supervision of the Communications Regulatory Authority.
The mood was tense overall, with a notable moment of levity: the two candidates agreed that they hadn’t had enough time to discuss security, and Macron said: “We we are much more disciplined than five years ago, Mrs Le Pen. Le Pen agreed and joked that it was because they were both getting older.
Macron, 44, was France’s youngest president when elected in 2017. Le Pen is 53.
Throughout the debate, Macron sought to shine a light on proposals that have long limited his party’s chances of winning over more moderate or left-leaning voters, including his anti-immigration platform.
“Anarchic and massive immigration aggravates insecurity in our country,” said Ms. Le Pen, who reiterated on Wednesday her determination to impose fines on women wearing the headscarf in public.
“You will create a civil war if you do this,” Macron warned in response.
Timsit reported from London.