Paris (AFP) French President Emmanuel Macron stormed his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in a televised debate on Wednesday over her ties to Russia and her desire to strip Muslim women of their right to cover their heads in public. The votes he needs to win another 5-year term.
In their only head-to-head confrontation before voters have their say in Sunday’s run-off election, in which the winner will take it all, Macron took off the gloves.
He said that the loan that Le Pen’s party obtained in 2014 from a Russian Czech bank made it unsuitable for dealing with Moscow. He also said the anti-immigration candidate’s plans to ban Muslim women in France from wearing the headscarf in public would lead to a “civil war” in the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
Le Pen, in turn, sought to woo voters suffering from rising prices amid the fallout from the Russian war in Ukraine. She said lowering the cost of living would be her priority if she was elected as France’s first female president and portrayed herself as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She said Macron’s presidency has left the country deeply divided. She repeatedly referred to the so-called “yellow vests” protest movement that rocked his government before the COVID-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policies.
“France needs to be reconnected,” she said.
The prime-time evening debate has returned to the wide chasm in politics and personality between the two candidates once again vying for the presidency, five years after Macron easily defeated Le Pen in 2017.
Opinion polls show Macron, a pro-European centrist, with a growing and significant lead over nationalist sentiment. But the result is expected to be closer than five years, and the two candidates are vying to vote 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 wrestled over France’s energy needs.
“You are not like me,” Macron said. “Thanks for the reminder.”
The French leader has been particularly scathing in his criticism of the €9 million ($9.8 million) loan that Le Pen’s party took in 2014 from the first Czech-Russian bank. Macron argued that because of debt, Le Pen’s hands would be tied when dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, if she wins on Sunday.
“You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia, that’s the problem,” Macron said. “You cannot properly defend the interests of France in this matter because your interests are related to people close to Russian power.”
“You depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr. Putin,” he said.
Le Pen was alarmed by Macron’s suggestion that she was beholden to Russia. She described herself as “completely free” and said Macron “knows very well that what he says is false.”
She said her party was repaying the loan and called the president “dishonest” for raising the issue. Le Pen repeated what she said earlier: that her party went to the FCRB after French and European banks refused to lend him money. The loan has plagued her far-right party for years, along with her 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.He urged voters to support Macron and claimed Le Pen was closely linked to Russia.
In a long Twitter thread, Navalny said the bank is linked to Putin and a “known money laundering agency.”
He did not cite any evidence other than his investigations into corruption in Russia. But he said the loan could be dangerous for France if Le Pen wins.
“This was not just a shady deal,” he wrote on Twitter. What do you think if a French politician borrows from Cosa Nostra? Well, it’s the same thing.”
Because she lags in the polls, Le Pen needed to deliver a knockout blow in the debate. But she got off to an ominous start: After being selected to speak first, she began speaking before the debate’s opening song finished playing. Inaudible because of the music, she had to stop and start over. I apologized.
As soon as the verbal duel began, Macron quickly put Le Pen on the defensive. Focus on her electoral record as a lawmaker and question her understanding of economic numbers. Le Pen seemed more comfortable talking about the topics that have long been central to her politics and appeal to far-right voters: the fight against what she called “anarchic mass immigration” and crime.
Usually a powerful orator, Le Pen sometimes struggled for words and fluidity. It also sometimes lacks its distinctive courage. In this campaign, she sought to soften her image and get rid of the label of extremism that critics have long assigned to Le Pen and her party.
By contrast, Macron appeared to be particularly self-confident, at times bordering on arrogance – a trait his critics had highlighted. He sat with his arms crossed as he listened to Le Pen’s speech.
Macron came out ahead in the first round on April 10. But Le Pen, who made gains this year by exploiting the anger over inflationThe gap in popular support narrowed dramatically compared to 2017, when it lost 34% of the vote to Macron’s 66%.
In 2017, a similar debate dealt a devastating blow to her campaign, with a poor performance on her part.
Both candidates need to broaden support before Sunday’s vote. Many French, especially on the left, say they still don’t know whether or not to go to the polls.
Macron said the voters’ choice between the two was clear.
He said, “I am fighting your thoughts.” “I respect you as a person.”
Lister reports from Le Beck, France. Associated Press journalist Ellen Ganley contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the French election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022