Macron and Le Pen clash over Russia, hijabs in contentious debate | election news

The only debate between the two candidates in Sunday’s election comes with incumbent Emmanuel Macron leading challenger Marine Le Pen in the polls.

French President Emmanuel Macron has slammed his far-right rival Marine Le Pen over her ties to Russia and her plan to ban Muslim women from wearing the hijab in public in a television debate ahead of the second and final vote of the Sunday for the presidency.

The only face-to-face confrontation of the runoff campaign was peppered with calls to “don’t interrupt me” and accusations that the other was not up to the job of leading France, a UN Security Council member. with veto power and the second in Europe. -Larger economy.

“Stop mixing everything up,” a combative Macron told Le Pen during a heated exchange about France’s debt, which like others has risen due to pandemic support measures.

“Don’t lecture me,” replied Le Pen, who avoided the pitfalls of a previous encounter in 2017, when her presidential bid fell apart because she mixed up her notes and lost her balance.

Polls suggest that Macron, a pro-European centrist, has a significant and growing lead over Le Pen. But the result is expected to be closer than it was five years ago, with both candidates seeking votes among voters who did not support them in the first round of the April 10 election.

Macron scolded his rival over a 9 million euro ($9.8 million) loan Le Pen’s party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank, saying it made her unsuitable for negotiating with Moscow.

“You are talking to your banker when you talk about Russia, that is the problem,” Macron charged. “You cannot properly defend France’s interests on this issue because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power.”

“You depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr. Putin,” he said.

Marine Le Pen, shown on a television screen, makes a comment as Emmanuel Macron listens
Marine Le Pen makes a comment as Emmanuel Macron listens, arms crossed. The only debate in the second round of the presidential election turned out to be unruly [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

Macron also said his plan to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would trigger a “civil war” in a country that has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

Le Pen bristled at Macron’s suggestion that he was beholden to Russia. She described herself as “totally free” and said Macron “knows very well that what she says is false.”

She tried to appeal to voters struggling with rising prices amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. She said lowering the cost of living would be her priority if she were elected as France’s first female president and tried to present herself as the candidate of voters who can’t make ends meet.

He said Macron’s presidency had left the country deeply divided. He 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 united again,” he said.

Bargaining

There was a lot of haggling behind the scenes before the debate, from the temperature of the room to tossing a coin to decide which topic they would start with, the cost of living, to who would speak first, Le Pen.

Usually a powerful speaker, Le Pen occasionally struggled to find words and fluency. She, too, sometimes lacked his characteristic bellicosity. She has sought in this campaign to soften his image and shed the ‘extremist’ label that critics have long attached to Le Pen and his party.

In contrast, Macron seemed particularly self-assured, bordering on arrogance at times, a trait his critics often pick on. He sat with his arms crossed as he listened to Le Pen speak.

With both candidates dismissing the other’s plans as unrealistic but not scoring any obvious knockout blows, the impact of the debate could be limited.

Only 14 percent of voters were waiting for the debate to decide who to vote for, while 12 percent said it would be decisive to vote, an OpinionWay-Kea Partners poll for Les Echos newspaper showed.

That said, after more than half of the electorate voted for far-right or far-left candidates in the first round on April 10, Macron’s lead in opinion polls is much narrower than in the last election when he won. to Le Pen with 66.1 percent of the vote. vote.

Since then, Le Pen has managed, at least in part, to appeal to mainstream voters, while Macron is no longer the same external disruptor he was in 2017 when the debate cemented his status as the clear front-runner.

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