French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen went head-to-head in a bruising televised debate on Wednesday night, seeking to sway undecided voters with just days left before the second and final round of the presidential election on Sunday.
Macron holds a solid lead in polls ahead of the April 24 run-off, but his political allies had warned against complacency ahead of the prime-time duel with Le Pen – their only direct debate of the campaign.
The far-right leader had cleared her schedule this week to concentrate on preparing for the face-off, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2017 debate fiasco that ended her hopes of pulling off an upset win five years ago.
In a reversal of roles, it was Macron who took the gloves off this time, tearing into his opponent over her ties to Russia and for wanting to strip Muslim women of their right to wear headscarves in public.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overshadowing the campaign, Macron repeatedly zeroed in on a 9-million-euro loan Le Pen’s party took from a Czech-Russian bank in 2014, arguing that because of this debt her hands would be tied when dealing with the Kremlin.
“You are dependent on the Russian government and you are dependent on Mr Putin,” he said. “When you speak to Russia you are speaking to your banker.”
Le Pen bristled at the suggestion that she was beholden to Moscow, arguing that her party had only taken the loan because French banks refused to lend to her. “I’m an absolutely and totally free woman,” she said.
The clash came just hours after jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had raised the issue of the loan in a Twitter thread, urging voters to back Macron and alleging that Le Pen is too closely linked to Russia.
Ahead of the debate, Le Pen’s camp had insisted that cutaways be strictly limited – mindful of the damaging shots of her rummaging through her notes in 2017.
Still, Macron could be seen adopting a variety of poses to express scepticism at her arguments, repeatedly raising his eyebrows, crossing his arms and lamenting in apparent bewilderment “Madame Le Pen, Madame Le Pen!”
The incumbent struggled at times not to sound patronising, as when he urged his opponent to “stop mixing things up”. “Stop giving lessons,” she fired back.
Aside from Russia, the other explosive clash came when Le Pen confirmed she would ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, describing the veil as a “uniform imposed by Islamists”.
Macron said such a plan contradicted France’s secular rules and would trigger “civil war” in the country that has the largest Muslim population in western Europe.
Le Pen also vowed to put an end to “anarchic and massive” immigration into France, claiming it was worsening crime.