Macron slams Le Pen over Putin ties and headscarf ban in tense debate

In the only debate before Sunday’s presidential run-off, French President Emmanuel Macron attacked his far-right rival Marine Le Pen for owing money to a Kremlin-linked bank and warned that her proposal to ban the headscarf for Muslim women could “create a civil war.”

The other side: Le Pen, who tried to rebrand and celebrate after being crushed by Macron in 2017, hit out at the French president on crime and the rising cost of living and argued she better understands the struggles voters.

State of play: Macron’s lead was up to 10% in the latest Politico poll of the polls – wider than the 6% gap a week ago but still much closer than 2017’s 66% to 34% result.

  • A key question is whether supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate who finished just behind Le Pen with 22% in the first round, will flock to Macron or stay home.

On Russia and Ukraine:

  • Le Pen expressed “solidarity and compassion” with the Ukrainian people, pledged humanitarian and defense aid, and even praised Macron’s diplomatic efforts.
  • But Le Pen opposed a ban on Russian oil and gas, arguing it would not harm Russia but would be “cataclysmic” for France. She also warned that sending some weapons to Ukraine could make France a “co-belligerent” and that efforts to isolate Moscow could result in a Russian-Chinese alliance.
  • Macron hit Le Pen hard for his past praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and for quickly acknowledging Russian control over Crimea in 2014.
  • In one of the most scathing lines of attack of the night, Macron said that Russia was in fact Le Pen’s banker, and that he would have a “dependency” on Moscow because his party has yet to fully repay a 2014 loan to a Russian state-linked bank.
  • Le Pen countered that she was not dependent on Russia, saying “I am a completely free and independent woman”.

On Europe:

  • Le Pen denied plans to pull France out of the euro or the EU – positions on which she has changed since 2017 – but said she would defend France in Brussels in a way that no former French president had not done.
  • Macron promised to reform aspects of EU law, including the Schengen free movement area, but also defended the EU and the Franco-German partnership, noting that France does not produce its own COVID mRNA vaccine and had to rely on partners like Germany.
  • Macron also dismissed Le Pen’s claim that he saw France as a ‘continental’ power, not a ‘world power’, and focused too much on Europe rather than France’s overseas territories. and relations with French-speaking countries in Africa.

On quality of life:

  • Le Pen hit Macron hard in two areas: crime and the rising cost of living. She said Macron’s “contempt” for the police had been damaging and she would “show them some love” while giving criminals harsher sentences.
  • She argued that life in France is harder than it was five years ago and said – without too many details – that she would use ‘economic patriotism’ and ‘common sense’ to improve things.
  • Macron has tried to reach out to disillusioned voters on the left with promises to make France a “great environmental powerhouse” and offer more support to the poorest in society.

On headscarves for Muslim women:

  • The most explosive moment in the debate came when Le Pen was asked about her proposal to ban the hijab in all public places.
  • Macron said she would make France the first country in the world to ban religious symbols and “will have police running down the street chasing girls wearing hijabs or boys wearing yarmulkes.”
  • Seizing the point to underscore Le Pen’s hardline candidacy, Macron said some French citizens could not leave their homes under the law and that Le Pen’s proposals could lead to a “civil war”.

Tone of debate:

  • Le Pen didn’t lose his cool, like during his disastrous debate performance in 2017, and maintained a warm, smiling demeanor through nearly 3 hours of debate. She sometimes got upset when Macron pressed her on specific numbers and political positions.
  • Experts noted that while Macron’s didactic streak underscored his mastery of political issues, it may have discouraged voters already inclined to view him as arrogant.
  • When Macron at one point joked that Le Pen had “behaved much better than last time”, she responded with a smile: “We are getting older and wiser”.

Go further: Macron’s struggles with young voters leave an opening for Le Pen

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional details from the debate.

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