Macron and Le Pen Trade Punches in Tough but Inconclusive Debate

PARIS — In a bruising debate ahead of the vote on Sunday in the French presidential election, President Emmanuel Macron accused his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, of being in the pocket of Russia, and she countered with a withering attack on the “unbearable injustice” of Mr. Macron’s economic measures.

Interrupting each other and accusing each other of lying, they traded barbs on everything from the environment to pension reform for almost three hours on Wednesday, without ever quite delivering a knockout blow.

“When you speak to Russia, you speak to your banker,” Mr. Macron said, suggesting that Ms. Le Pen would be incapable of defending French interests because “you depend on Russian power” and on the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Macron was alluding to a 9.4 million-euro loan, then worth $12.2 million, made to Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally party, formerly the National Front, from a Russian bank in 2014. The loan is still not repaid and, after the collapse of the bank in 2016, is now held by a company with ties to the Russian military.

“I am a totally free woman,” Ms. Le Pen retorted.

She has been a strong supporter of Mr. Putin for many years, approving of his annexation of Crimea in 2014, before recalibrating her position after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “It is dishonest to prevent me from getting a loan from a French bank and then criticize me for seeking it abroad,” she said.

After a long campaign, it was their first face-to-face encounter in a debate since 2017, when Mr. Macron made a mockery of Ms. Le Pen’s incoherent plans to take France out of the eurozone, to such effect that the electoral contest was effectively over. He went on to trounce her, 66.1 percent to 33.9 percent.

President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen prior to their first debate since 2017. Credit…Pool photo by Ludovic Marin

This time, Ms. Le Pen has dropped plans to leave both the European Union and the eurozone as part of a successful attempt to moderate her image, although not the anti-immigrant and nationalist character of her platform. While she suffered through some difficult moments in the debate, appearing lost on the subject of the ballooning debt France incurred in battling Covid-19, she generally held her own.

Ms. Le Pen’s campaign has prospered through close attention to the pocketbook problems of millions of French people facing rising inflation. She stuck close to these issues in the debate, telling Mr. Macron that his attempt to raise the retirement age to 65 from 62 was “an intolerable injustice.” In her program, she said, full pensions would be payable between the ages of 60 and 62.

When Mr. Macron suggested she would not be able to pay for this and was being “dishonest” with people, Ms. Le Pen shot back: “Don’t give me lessons on the financing of my project, because when we are counting 600 billion euros in debt, you should be modest.”

This exasperated Mr. Macron. Crossing his arms, occasionally slumped or with his hand on his chin, by turns ironic and supercilious, he ran the risk of looking arrogant or condescending, a criticism frequently leveled at him over the past five years.

The debt, he said, was incurred under his “whatever-it-takes” response to the pandemic that offered paid furlough programs, subsidies for shuttered businesses, and a wide array of other assistance.

“What would you have done?” he demanded more than once of Ms. Le Pen, without ever getting a direct response. She did not seem to have one and looked flummoxed. It was, Mr. Macron noted, the worst pandemic in a century.

The latest polls give Mr. Macron 55 percent of the vote and Ms. Le Pen 45 percent. Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The election is being closely watched in part because a Le Pen victory, although improbable, appears possible. It did not seem any less so after the debate, a sharp confrontation of alternating fortunes that in the end had the feel of a draw.

The latest polls, published before the debate, give Ms. Le Pen 45 percent of the vote to Mr. Macron’s 55 percent. With her anti-NATO views, her perception of the United States as an intruder in Europe, and her insistence on a foreign policy “equidistant” from Washington and Moscow, she would almost certainly pose a threat to the allied unity forged by President Biden in response Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In an interview on the French TV station BFM just before the debate, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, said: “While I do not think that I have the right to influence what happens in your country, I want to say I have a relationship with Emmanuel Macron and I would not want to lose that.”

He added that Ms. Le Pen was wrong in her views about Russia-Ukraine issues. “If Le Pen understands that she has made a mistake, our relationship could change,” he said.

Hostile to the European Union, and fiercely critical of Germany, Ms. Le Pen would also menace the foundation of the process of European integration, built since 1945 on Franco-German reconciliation.

Ms. Le Pen called Mr. Macron a “punitive ecologist” and mounted an effective assault on his highly personal way of governing that has reduced the role of the legislature.

She criticized him for pushing people who could not afford it to buy expensive electric cars, for example, and for demanding a transition to a post-carbon economy “that should be a lot less rapid” given the hardships many people face.

Mr. Macron accused Ms. Le Pen of being a “climate skeptic.” She retorted that he was “a climate hypocrite.”

It was Mr. Macron’s attempt to raise diesel fuel prices for environmental reasons that triggered the Yellow Vest protest movement that started in 2018.

“The Yellow Vests told you they wanted more democracy and they were not heard,” she said. “I think the biggest problem at the end of these five years is the disunion, the division, that you have caused among the French people, the feeling of contempt they have, the feeling of not being listened to, of not being heard, of not being consulted.”

Now was the time, she added, “to stitch French democracy together” again.

How Ms. Le Pen would do this through a political program certain to antagonize France’s more than six million Muslims, as well as many foreigners living in France, is unclear. While she insisted she had nothing against Islam as a religion, she said that an Islamist ideology was “attacking the foundations of our Republic.”

One of the most pointed clashes came on the issue of Muslim head scarves. Ms. Le Pen, who wants to bar women from wearing them in public, called head scarves “a uniform imposed by Islamists” that undermined French values of secularism and gender equality.

“All of these women need to be freed,” she said.

Mr. Macron shot back that banning head scarves was an unworkable proposal that would fuel “civil war,” that conflated Islam and extremism, and that dishonored France’s values of tolerance.

He referred to Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the Muslim mother of a victim of the 2012 terrorist shootings in Toulouse, who became an activist for youth outreach and interreligious dialogue after her son’s death. The attacks killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school, as well as French army soldiers including her son, Imad Ibn Ziaten.

“You want to pull off her head scarf?” Mr. Macron said. “That’s what you are proposing, very concretely.”

Repeated Islamist terrorist attacks in France, most recently the beheading in 2020 of a schoolteacher who had shown a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on freedom of expression, have contributed to the sharp ideological divisions afflicting the country and the rise of the anti-immigrant extreme right.

On economic issues generally, as in 2017, Mr. Macron seemed best able to marshal the facts, and when he told Ms. Le Pen that “you never explain how you will finance your reforms,” she seemed to have little by way of an answer.

She has promised to cut the value-added tax to zero from 5.5 percent on 100 “essential goods” as a response to the rising cost of living. But, Mr. Marcon said, that would be “unjust,” benefiting the poor but also the rich who had no need of such relief. He cited himself, Ms. Le Pen, and the two journalist moderators in an effective illustration of his point.

As the debate turned in its second half to other issues — including the strained state of French democracy and Mr. Macron’s flip-flopping attempts to address environmental issues — Ms. Le Pen landed some effective counterpunches. She had a smile on her face as she commented, “You are getting irritated Mr. Macron, you are getting irritated.”

Ms. Le Pen said Mr. Macron had failed to defend French economic interests in Brussels on European issues like free trade and foreign workers in France, but she also insisted that she had no intention of leaving the European Union, naming him a “conspiracy theorist” for suggesting otherwise.

Mr. Macron called Ms. Le Pen disingenuous, arguing that her vow to reduce France’s contribution to the European Union budget and ignore several of its fundamental rules on freedom of movement and the single market would lead to a de facto French exit from the union, sometimes referred to as a “Frexit.”

“It’s a project that doesn’t say its name but that entails leaving the European Union,” Mr. Macron said. “I’m not lying about the goods; you are lying about the goods.”

Mr. Macron concluded with a passionate plea for the united Europe in which he has always believed and for “fraternity in the Republic.”

The election, he said, “was a referendum for or against what we profoundly are.”

Aurelien Breeden, Constant Méheut, Daphné Anglès and Adèle Cordonnier contributed reporting.

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