Macron and Le Pen in show of cordial hostility ahead of presidential run-off

Lighter moments punctuate intense TV debate that highlights chasm between the candidates

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen resumed campaigning on Thursday, three days ahead of the French presidential election and following a heated television debate on Wednesday night.

Both candidates sought out disadvantaged voters who are likely to abstain in Sunday's run-off. Macron went to the immigrant banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in the Paris region, to talk about urban renewal. "Le 9-3", known by its postal code as a hotbed of violence and radical Islam, had the highest abstention rate in France in the first round ballot on April 10th, when the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon won 49.09 per cent of votes there.

Le Pen travelled to the Somme and the Pas-de-Calais, France's second poorest region and a stronghold of her Rassemblement National party, to talk about the cost of living, the main theme of her campaign.

Opinion polls indicate that Macron is likely to defeat Le Pen by between eight and 13 percentage points. Most French media concluded the debate was a victory for Macron. A poll by BFMTV showed 59 per cent of viewers thought Macron won.

The candidates gave the impression of cordially detesting one another. In the lightest moment of a contest that lasted just 10 minutes short of three hours, Macron remarked with a smile that they had kept to equal air time. “We are more disciplined than five years ago,” he said. “We’re getting older,” Le Pen replied.

Macron’s body language seemed to confirm accusations of arrogance and contemptuousness. The incumbent leaned forward, chin in hand, his face registering dismay or incredulity. He rarely looked at Le Pen.

Le Pen did not lose her composure as she did in the previous debate, but she was on the defensive. She repeated slogans such as “France is its people” and “I want to give the French their money back”, while Macron provided spontaneous, in-depth analysis. Five years of preparation improved Le Pen’s performance, but she remains less at ease with economic, technocratic jargon.

Macron criticised Le Pen's "fatal choice" of an alliance with Russia. "Our choice is to defend Ukraine, while remaining vigilant, as I have from the beginning, that this war does not escalate and spread."

Le Pen condemned “the inadmissible aggression against Ukraine” and praised Macron’s efforts to resolve the conflict.

Why then, Macron asked, had Le Pen’s party systematically voted in favour of Russia and against Ukraine in the European Parliament? Le Pen was one of the first leaders to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “Since the second World War, in international law one rarely recognises territories that are annexed by force,” the French president said.

Knockout blow

Hours before the debate, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny stressed Le Pen's closeness to Putin and said they hoped for Macron's victory.

Macron said Russian bank loans to Le Pen’s party were “bad news for our country, because you depend on the Russian government, and you depend on Monsieur Putin. When you talk to Putin, you’re talking to your banker”. It was the closest thing to a knockout blow.

“That is false and dishonest!” Le Pen shot back, saying the RN is reimbursing a €9.4 million loan “cash on the nail every month”. No French bank would loan her money, she added. Striking the victim’s pose, she added, “My party is poor. There is nothing shameful about that.”

The environment has become an issue because it is so important to Mélenchon’s voters. Macron and Le Pen would both rely mainly on nuclear power plants, but she rejects renewable energy sources. “You are a climate denier,” he told Le Pen. “You are a climate hypocrite,” she replied, alluding to criticism of Macron’s record by environmental groups.

Le Pen accused Macron of wanting to put wind turbines “everywhere, on all coastlines, except for facing Le Touquet”. Macron and his wife Brigitte own a villa in the Channel port. “Are you kidding?”, Macron reacted with an outraged expression. The government has cancelled plans for at least a half dozen offshore wind farms, including at Le Touquet, due to local opposition.

In a sarcastic moment, Le Pen attacked Macron’s economic record, recalling that he had been called “the Mozart of finance” in the previous campaign. She accused him of increasing the national debt by €600 billion and noted there were 400,000 more poor people in France than when he took office. Macron attributed the entire€600 billion to the Covid pandemic.

Le Pen described Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65 as “an unbearable injustice” because the French “will no longer be capable of enjoying it”.

Cost of living was supposed to be Le Pen’s strong suit. But the candidates argued inconclusively over reducing VAT on energy versus capping energy prices, and on incentives to employers to raise salaries. “You never explain how you will finance your projects,” Macron said. “You are not honest with people.”

Doubled down

During an intense exchange over crime, immigration and the Muslim headscarf, Le Pen said, “We are confronted with real barbarity, truly savage behaviour... One is wounded. One endures violence. They jump on your head and try to murder you.” The cause, she said, was “anarchical, massive immigration”.

Macron reproached Le Pen’s sequencing of ideas. “From a question on the headscarf, you moved to terrorism, returned to Islamism and then to foreigners. You create a system of equivalence that conflates all these problems.”

Le Pen had in recent days seemed to backslide on her plan to ban the headscarf, which she calls “an Islamist uniform”. But she doubled down on the objective on Wednesday night.

Macron said the ban “would lead to civil war” in France. “The country of the Enlightenment, of universal values, would be the first country in the world to ban religious symbols in public,” he continued. “You cannot claim that a law banning the headscarf in public is a law against radical Islam.”

“Yes, I can!” Le Pen replied. “I can’t believe it!” Macron replied.

Macron accused Le Pen of hiding her intention of taking France out of the European Union. She claimed she wants to remain in the EU, but would transform it into "an alliance of European nations".

Thursday marked the anniversary of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s qualification for the run-off in the 2002 presidential election. That was an earthquake in French politics. More than one million people took to the streets in a show of strength against the extreme right.

Twenty years later, the Le Pens, father and daughter, have reached the gates of the Élysée three times, each time with substantially higher scores. Five years ago, Emmanuel Macron promised to reduce the appeal of their party. His inability to do so has been perhaps his greatest failing.

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