Macron hits Le Pen on Putin ties and headscarf ban in tense debate

In the sole debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential run-off, French President Emmanuel Macron attacked his far-right rival Marine Le Pen for owing money to a Kremlin-linked bank and warned that his proposal to ban head scarves for Muslim women could “create a civil war.”

The other side: Le Pen, who has attempted to rebrand herself and party after being crushed by Macron in 2017, hit the French president on crime and the rising cost of living and made the case that she better understands the struggles of voters.

State of play: Macron’s lead was up to 10% in the latest Politico poll of polls — wider than the 6% gap one week ago but still far closer than the 66% to 34% result from 2017.

  • One key question is whether backers of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate who finished just behind Le Pen with 22% in the first round, will flock to Macron or remain home.

On Russia and Ukraine:

  • Le Pen expressed “solidarity and compassion” with the Ukrainian people, promised humanitarian and defense assistance, and even praised Macron’s diplomatic efforts.
  • But Le Pen opposed a ban on Russian oil and gas, arguing it wouldn’t hurt Russia but would be “cataclysmic” for France. She also warned that sending certain weapons to Ukraine could make France a “co-belligerent,” and that efforts to isolate Moscow could result in a Russia-China alliance.
  • Macron hit Le Pen hard for her past praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and for being quick to recognize Russian control over Crimea in 2014.
  • In one of the most stinging attack lines of the night, Macron said Russia was in fact Le Pen’s banker, and she would have a “dependency” on Moscow because her party has yet to fully repay a 2014 loan from to a bank linked to the Russian state.
  • Le Pen shot back that she isn’t dependent on Russia, saying “I am a completely free, independent woman.”

On Europe:

  • Le Pen denied that she planned to pull France out of the Euro or the EU — positions she has shifted on since 2017 — but said she would stand up for France in Brussels in a way no previous French president had.
  • Macron promised to reform aspects of EU law, including the Schengen free movement zone, but also defended the EU and the Franco-German partnership, noting that France did not produce its own mRNA COVID vaccine and had to rely on partners like Germany.
  • Macron also rejected Le Pen’s claim that he viewed France as a “continental” power and not a “world power,” and was focusing too much on Europe rather than French overseas territories and relations with Francophone countries in Africa.

On quality of life:

  • Le Pen hit Macron hard in two areas: crime and the rising cost of living. She said Macron’s “contempt” for the police has been harmful, and she would “show them some love” while giving criminals harsher sentences.
  • She made the case that life in France is harder than it was five years ago, and said — without much detail — that she’d use “economic patriotism” and “common sense” to improve things.
  • Macron tried to reach out to disillusioned voters on the left with promises to make France a “great environmental power” and offer more support to the poorest in society.

On headscarves for Muslim women:

  • The most explosive moment of the debate came when Le Pen was asked about her proposal to ban the hijab in all public places.
  • Macron said she would be making France the first country in the world to ban religious symbols, and “would have police officers running down the street chasing girls wearing hijabs or boys wearing the kippah.”
  • Seizing on the point to emphasize Le Pen’s radical candidacy, Macron said some French citizens wouldn’t be able to leave their homes under the law, and that Le Pen’s proposals could lead to “civil war.”

Tone of the debate:

  • Le Pen did not lose her cool, as in her disastrous 2017 debate performance, and maintained a warm, smiling demeanor through nearly 3 hours of debating. She did grow flustered at times when Macron pressed her on specific numbers and policy positions.
  • Pundits noted that while that didactic tendency of Macron’s underscored his mastery of the policy issues, he may have turned off voters already inclined to view him as arrogant.
  • When Macron quipped at one point that Le Pen had been “much better behaved than last time,” she replied smilingly, “We’re getting older and wise.”

Go deeper: Macron’s struggles with young voters leave an opening for Le Pen

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional details from the debate.

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