Paris: French President Emmanuel Macron, seeking a second five-year term in office, seemed to get the better of his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in a two and a half-hour television debate — the only one of its kind in the current presidential campaign.
The second and final round of the election, which has whittled down to a straight contest between the two finalists after the rest of the field were eliminated on April 10, will be held on Sunday.
Given the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia and its President Vladimir Putin became central topics on which the two contestants crossed swords. Macron accused Le Pen’s National Rally party of taking a loan in 2014 from a Russian bank which was “close to power” (in the Kremlin).
“This is bad news; because you depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr Putin.”
Le Pen retorted: “Mr Macron has access to all the information from French intelligence, he knows full well that what he is saying is false.
“It’s dishonest to prevent me from taking a loan in a French bank and to blame me for going abroad (for a loan).”
Macron interjected: “Are you kidding or what? I never intervened (as minister of the economy in the Francois Hollande government), you know that very well.”
The discussion pertained to a loan of 9.4 million euros National Rally obtained from a Russian bank, First Czech Russian Bank, which it is still paying back.
The debate then turned to the European Union. Macron stated: “I believe in Europe and I believe in the Franco-German coupling.”
Unlike five years ago when she was also Macron’s ultimate opponent, Le Pen no longer wants to leave the EU. Her new position she outlined as: “I deeply wish to modify (the EU) in order to effectively bring about a European alliance of nations.”
She deplored EU policy on workers, agriculture and free movement of labour.
Macron quipped sarcastically: “So 80 per cent of the (EU) programme needs to be changed, which is good news compared to five years ago!”
The exchanges heated further. Macron called Le Pen a “climate sceptic”; she labelled him a “climate hypocrite”.
Le Pen advocates nuclear power to make France self-sufficient in energy. Macron commented: “Your strategy is an all-nuclear strategy. It is not possible and you cannot replace the current renewable (sources of energy) that you want to dismantle, with nuclear, because what we are deciding on today will come into service in 2035.”
Macron flagged the fall in unemployment under his watch as an achievement. It was 9.6 per cent when he took office in 2017; it is 7.4 per cent now.
Le Pen dismissed this by saying there had been an “uberisation of society” – meaning what had been created were low paid jobs.
Her hard-line views came to the fore when she declared that “anarchic and massive immigration contributes to the aggravation of insecurity in our country”.
Macron entered the live debate with a lead in excess of 12 per cent in opinion polls.
In an unavoidable comparison between camera close-ups, the president looked youthful, photogenic and composed, though never missing an opportunity to take a jab at his opponent.
In contrast, Le Pen appeared to be slightly jaded, tense and sometimes unconvincing in her repartee.