Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, has accused his far-right rival Marine Le Pen of being retained to Vladimir Putin and of risking civil war in France with her plans to curb Islamism.
But in a combative television debate four days before the final vote of the presidential election, he was unable to land the same kind of killer blows that sealed her defeat in 2017.
Le Pen, who has her best chance to date of becoming France’s first woman president and its first far-right head of state since the second world war, outlined her plans to drastically reduce “massive, anarchic” immigration, reform the EU and impose law and order.
She accused the liberal Macron of having a “very bad economic record” and “an even worse social record” as president.
During nearly three hours of sometimes tetchy confrontation on pre-selected topics, Macron repeatedly interrupted Le Pen and questioned her facts and then sat back looking skeptical with his arms folded.
At one point, Léa Salamé, one of two journalist moderators ensuring that the two had equal time to talk, told the president: “Emmanuel Macron, let her speak!”
As expected, Macron ruthlessly exploited one of Le Pen’s weak points: her previous links to Putin and a loan to her party from a Russian bank in 2014 that is still being repaid. “You depend on Russian power and you depend on Putin,” he said. When she talked about Russia, he added, she was “talking to her bankers”.
Le Pen was on the defensive, and agreed on the need to help Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion, but she stood by her rejection of sanctions on the Russian oil and gas on which much of western Europe depends. “We can not commit hara-kiri in the hope of doing financial damage to Russia, which will no doubt sell its oil and gas to other countries anyway, ”she said.
Macron, who is seeking to win round voters who supported the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the election on April 10, also harshly criticized Le Pen’s plan to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, saying that it would be dangerous as well as unconstitutional.
“You will trigger civil war if you do that,” he said, prompting Le Pen to accuse him of making a “very serious” accusation.
Five years ago, her performance in the debate against Macron was considered a disaster, even by her own campaign team, because she stumbled over business and economic policy questions when challenged by Macron.
This time, her performance was more assured but she still seemed uncomfortable at times. Macron, a former finance minister and Rothschild banker, clearly had the advantage when discussing topics such as unemployment, investment and start-ups.
On the campaign trail around France, Le Pen has successfully focused on the rising cost of living, rather than the traditional far-right concerns about immigration and crime. She has also attacked one of Macron’s most unpopular manifesto pledges, a gradual increase in the retirement age from 62 to 65 to reduce the cost of the country’s pension system.
“Retirement at 65 is an absolutely unacceptable injustice,” she said during the debate on Wednesday.
Opinion polls suggest that Macron will narrowly win the second-round vote on Sunday, although most recent surveys show his lead increasing slightly. A Harris Interactive poll published on Wednesday gave him 54 per cent of voting intentions, an eight-point lead over Le Pen’s 46 per cent.