Russia and Europe featured early as Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen clashed in their live televised debate on Wednesday night, four days before the decisive vote in France’s presidential election.
“Another choice is possible”, Le Pen said at the outset, claiming she would be “president of everyday life” as she kicked off the contest with the outgoing president. The incumbent, meanwhile, began by vowing to “take hold of the environmental question” and to “make Europe stronger”.
The far-right challenger — who qualified for next Sunday’s run-off along with Macron after the first round on April 10 — was under pressure to land a significant blow on her adversary, who has extended his lead in recent days according to opinion polls.
‘Dependent on Putin’
As the debate turned early to Ukraine, Macron went on the offensive, accusing his rival of “depending on Russian power” and “on Mr Putin” for having “taken out a loan from a Russian bank”.
“You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia, that’s the problem”, he alleged.
His opponent rejected the charge, insisting she was “patriotic (…) an absolutely and totally free woman”. She accused Macron of adopting an “undignified” and “dishonest” stance.
In 2014 the former National Front party (now “National Rally”) took out a €9 million loan from a Russian bank. Le Pen has justified seeking financing from Russia by citing the refusal of French banks to do so.
Although she said she categorically condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Marine Le Pen has been profuse in the past in her admiration for Vladimir Putin, defending in particular Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Despite the current war, her manifesto advocates closer security ties with Moscow.
‘Alliance of nations’
Macron also quickly went on the attack over Le Pen’s position towards Europe. The far-right candidate wants to implement a policy of “national preference”, to pull France out of the EU’s energy market, and to establish the supremacy of French over EU law. All subjects which would put France on a collision course with the EU.
His opponent insisted that she wanted to “stay in the European Union”, but “deeply modify it to bring about a ‘European alliance of nations'”.
But Macron accused Le Pen of failing to spell out her true intentions. “Your plan is to leave the EU. You’re lying about what’s on offer. Europe is a joint ownership property, you cannot decide on your own to paint the facade with gloss,” he said.
Climate ‘hypocrite’ v ‘sceptic’
The debate began with opening statements from the candidates, with Le Pen saying that “France’s greatest asset is its people”. Calling herself a “spokesperson for the French”, she decried having seen them “suffering” and worrying about a general “precariousness” over the past five years.
For his part, the incumbent insisted that this period had seen “unprecedented crises”, citing the Covid-19 pandemic and the war on European soil in Ukraine. Macron said he wanted to “make our country more independent and stronger through its economy, through work, through research, innovation, through its culture”.
On the environment, Le Pen accused Macron of being a “climate-hypocrite”, while she in turn was described by her rival as a “climate-sceptic”.
As the debate heated up, the challenger sarcastically suggested the president wanted to install wind farms everywhere except the north coast resort of Le Touquet where Macron has a second home. “You’re serious?” was his retort.
The two rivals also clashed on pensions, the economy, and especially the cost of living and high energy prices.
“You never explain how you finance your projects, you are not honest with people”, Emmanuel Macron said of his opponent, whose plans include reducing VAT on energy from 20% to 5.5%.
He also criticised Le Pen for failing to back his programme backing an energy cap in the National Assembly.
Some of the liveliest exchanges came later in the debate as the candidates turned to social issues, and particularly immigration. Macron accused Le Pen of pushing towards “civil war” in wanting to ban the Muslim headscarf from public spaces.
On security, Le Pen spoke of “a real barbarity” as the result of “massive, anarchic immigration”, to which Macron replied that French people did not want “posturing”.
A closer race
The debate was a repeat of 2017 when Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen also faced each other in the presidential run-off.
Le Pen recently admitted that her performance on that occasion was a failure. She went on to lose heavily, winning 33.9% of the vote compared with Macron’s 66.1%.
As the debate ended, some commentators suggested Le Pen had again appeared weaker on technical detail, particularly on the economy — but that she may have appeared more sympathetic to people’s everyday problems, while Macron risked being seen as arrogant.
While he is still leading in the polls this year, the margin is much smaller. The latest poll from Ipsos Sopra/Steria suggests Macron is leading voting intentions with 56.5% compared to 43.5% for Le Pen. Other polls have suggested a tighter race.
Both presidential candidates are looking to win the support of those who picked Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. The hard left candidate came third, winning 22% of the vote with a programme focusing on the public sector, social aid, and the environment.
Polls have suggested that many of those voters may abstain or vote blank. The “republican front” whereby large numbers voted tactically to keep out the far-right is substantially weaker than it has been in previous elections.