John Leicester and Sylvie Corbet, Associated Press, April 20, 2022
French President Emmanuel Macron tore into his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in a television debate Wednesday for her ties to Russia and for wanting to strip Muslim women of their right to cover their heads in public, as he seeks the votes he needs to win another 5-year term.
In their only head-to-head confrontation before the electorate has its say in Sunday’s winner-takes-all runoff vote for the presidency, Macron took the gloves off.
He argued that a loan that Le Pen’s party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank made her unsuitable to deal with Moscow. He also said plans by the anti-immigration candidate to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would trigger “civil war” in the country that has the largest Muslim population in western Europe.
Le Pen, in turn, sought to appeal to voters struggling with surging prices amid the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine. She said bringing down the cost of living would be her priority if elected as France’s first woman president and she portrayed herself as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She said Macron’s presidency had left the country deeply divided. She repeatedly referenced the so-called “yellow vest” protest movement that rocked his government before the COVID-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policies.
“France needs to be stitched back together,” she said.
The evening primetime debate drove home the yawning gulf in politics and character between the two candidates again vying for the presidency, five years after Macron handily beat Le Pen in 2017.
Polls suggest that Macron, a pro-European centrist, has a growing and significant lead over the nationalist firebrand. But the result is expected to be closer than five years ago and both candidates are angling for votes among electors who didn’t support them in the election’s first round on April 10.
“I am not like you,” Le Pen said as they clashed about France’s energy needs.
“You are not like me,” Macron said. “Thank you for the reminder.”
Once the verbal jousting began, Macron quickly put Le Pen on the defensive. He zeroed in on her voting record as a lawmaker and questioned her grasp of economic figures. Le Pen appeared most comfortable talking on topics that have long been centerpieces of her politics and her appeal to far-right voters: combatting what she called “anarchic and massive immigration” and crime.