French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right veteran Marine Le Pen went head-to-head in a live presidential debate on Wednesday night that could be crucial in determining the outcome of this weekend’s election.
Here are the key exchanges during nearly three hours of verbal sparring between the two candidates who will contest a second-round run-off on Sunday:
After a cursory handshake and some largely polite opening exchanges over the cost of living, sparks flew during the second segment of questions when both candidates were asked about foreign policy and the war in Ukraine.
Macron immediately went for the jugular, accusing Le Pen of being “dependent” on Russian President Vladimir Putin because of a loan her party took with a Russian bank before the 2017 presidential election.
“When you speak to Russia you are speaking to your banker,” Macron said.
Macron appeared to have a strategy of trying to destabilise Le Pen, attacking her personally and her programme throughout — at the risk of appearing arrogant and overbearing.
“Oh dear, oh dear, stop. You’re confusing everything,” he replied when she cited figures at him about the increase of the national debt of 600 billion euros over the last five years.
When not showing obvious bafflement at her answers, he likened her to well-loved 1980s French illusionist Gerard Majax, suggesting she was trying to fool people.
“Your programme doesn’t make sense,” he said.
A clear difference emerged over the European Union, which Le Pen said she wanted to reform into an “alliance of nations” in which the sovereignty of member countries was fully respected.
Macron accused her of wanting to pull France out of the 27-member bloc by stealth.
“When you put your programme together, piece by piece, it’s a programme that is not clear about its intentions but entails leaving Europe,” he said.
“Don’t fall into conspiracy theories,” Le Pen responded.
Le Pen sought to stress her proximity with ordinary French people throughout, talking of their suffering under Macron and their growing fear of crime across the nation.
“We’re facing real barbarism, increased savagery. Everywhere I go, including in the countryside, people can’t stand it anymore,” she said.
“When you have anything of any value, people are trembling that someone will take it, that it’s stolen, that they’re beaten. It’s unbearable.”
Le Pen confirmed her plans to ban the Muslim headscarf in public spaces — a “uniform imposed by Islamists”, as she called it.
“I think we need to introduce a law against Islamist ideology. I’m not fighting against a religion, I’m not against Islam, which is a religion that has a place (in France),” she added.
Macron responded: “You are going to cause a civil war if you do that. I say this sincerely.”
“You’re proposing how many policemen to go running after a headscarf or a kippa or a religious symbol?” he added.
Flickers of warmth
Despite the repeated clashes, mid-way through Macron remarked that they were both more disciplined in respecting the rules of the debate than during their last exchange during the 2017 election.
“It’s true, we’re aged,” Le Pen said with a smile.
“I will be very respectful to you: it doesn’t show. It’s very obvious in my case,” the greying president replied.
At the end, he concluded by thanking her.
“I’m fighting against your party and its history and its political positioning, but I respect you as a person,” he said.