by Stuart Williams and Adam Plowright
© Agence France-Presse
PARIS, France (AFP) — French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen on Wednesday clashed bitterly over relations with Russia and economic policy as they sought to sway undecided voters in a debate four days ahead of presidential elections.
France faces a stark choice in Sunday’s second-round run-off between the centrist president Macron and the anti-immigration Le Pen, who will seek to become the country’s first far-right head of state in an outcome that would send shockwaves around Europe.
The president adopted an aggressive approach in the live televised debate, repeatedly seeking to land punches on Le Pen over her record, while she sought to keep the focus on the government’s performance.
The tone sharpened as the discussion moved to foreign policy, with Macron angrily zeroing on a loan Le Pen’s party had taken from a Czech-Russian bank ahead of her 2017 election campaign.
“You are dependent on the Russian government and you are dependent on Mr (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” Macron said. “When you speak to Russia you are speaking to your banker.”
Macron and Le Pen, who exchanged a brief handshake before the debate, sat face-to-face at two individual tables separated by just a few meters.
Le Pen replied that she was “an absolutely and totally free woman”, arguing that her party had only taken that loan as it could not find financing in France where banks refused to lend to her.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overshadowing the campaign, Macron also attacked Le Pen for her past recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsular of Crimea.
Le Pen replied: “I support a free Ukraine that is not submissive to the United States or the European Union or Russia, that is my position.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had urged Le Pen earlier to admit “she made a mistake” in her past admiration for Putin and her refusal to condemn his 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Even jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny waded in to the fray with a Twitter thread accusing Le Pen of “corruption” and “selling political influence to Putin” over the loan of nine million euros ($10 million) from a bank he described as “Putin’s notorious money-laundering outfit”.
The priority for Le Pen was to avoid a repeat of the 2017 run-off debate where Macron managed to make her look flustered and sometimes not on top of her brief.
When she cited increased debt under Macron, he replied: “Oh dear, oh dear. Stop. you’re getting everything confused.”
He also accused her of having a “program that’s nonsense.”
Turning to Europe, Le Pen insisted she wanted to stay in the European Union but reform the bloc into an “alliance of nations”.
“Europe is not all or nothing,” she said, as Macron retorted that she appeared to be proposing something other than EU membership.
“Your policy is to leave Europe,” he said.
The opening exchanges of the debate — expected to last almost three hours — were dominated by daily concerns such as the rising cost of living, which Le Pen has made a major feature of her campaign.
Both candidates have their eyes on voters who backed third-placed hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round. He has refused to urge his supporters to vote for Macron in order to keep Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace.
Le Pen said she had seen people “suffering” over the first five years of Macron’s rule and that “another choice is possible”.
“If the French people honor me with their confidence on Sunday, I will be a president for daily life, the value of work and purchasing power,” she said.
Macron replied that “we must and should improve people’s daily lives through major projects for the school and health systems”.
He claimed his measures to help household incomes were more effective than Le Pen’s and also said that France should become a “great ecological power of the 21st century”.
Macron is favorite to win the run-off, with most polls showing an advantage of over 10 percent, and become the first French president to win a second term since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
The latest poll by Ipsos/Sopra Steria published Wednesday predicted a solid margin of victory for Macron on 56 percent to 44 for Le Pen.
But analysts and allies of the president have warned the result is far from a foregone conclusion, with polls indicating over 10 percent of French who intend to cast their ballots have yet to decide who to vote for.
An Odoxa poll released Wednesday found that Macron’s approval rating as a “good president” had slumped to just 40 percent in mid-April, down six points from March.
“This debate will probably be decisive for giving an advantage to one of these two rivals,” said Odoxa’s president Gael Sliman.
Brice Teinturier, director general of Ipsos France, said that while in the past presidential debates had become more of a tradition than decisive, this one “could move more votes than we have ever observed before” in modern France.
© Agence France-Presse