PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron tore into his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in a television debate Wednesday for her ties to Russia and for wanting to strip Muslim women of their right to cover their heads in public, as he seeks the votes he needs to win another 5-year term.
In their only head-to-head confrontation before the electorate has its say in Sunday's winner-takes-all runoff vote for the presidency, Macron took the gloves off.
He argued that a loan that Le Pen's party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank made her unsuitable to deal with Moscow. He also said plans by the anti-immigration candidate to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would trigger “civil war” in the country that has the largest Muslim population in western Europe.
Le Pen, in turn, sought to appeal to voters struggling with surging prices amid the fallout of Russia's war in Ukraine. She said bringing down the cost of living would be her priority if elected as France's first woman president and she portrayed herself as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
She said Macron's presidency had left the country deeply divided. She repeatedly referenced the so-called “yellow vest” protest movement that rocked his government before the COVID-19 pandemic, with months of violent demonstrations against his economic policies.
“France needs to be stitched back together,” she said.
The evening primetime debate drove home the yawning gulf in politics and character between the two candidates again vying for the presidency, five years after Macron handily beat Le Pen in 2017.
Polls suggest that Macron, a pro-European centrist, has a growing and significant lead over the nationalist firebrand. But the result is expected to be closer than five years ago and both candidates are angling for votes among electors who didn't support them in the election's first round on April 10.
“I am not like you,” Le Pen said as they clashed about France's energy needs.
“You are not like me," Macron said. “Thank you for the reminder.”
The French leader was particularly mordant in his criticism of the 9-million euro ($9.8 million) loan that Le Pen's party received in 2014 from the First Czech-Russian Bank. Macron argued that because of the debt, Le Pen's hands would be tied when dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, should she win on Sunday.
“You are speaking to your banker when you speak of Russia, that's the problem," Macron charged. “You cannot correctly defend France's interests on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power.”
“You depend on Russian power and you depend on Mr. Putin," he said.
Le Pen bristled at Macron’s suggestion that she is beholden to Russia. She described herself as “totally free" and said Macron “knows full well that what he says is false.”
She said her party is repaying the loan and called the president "dishonest” for raising the issue. Le Pen repeated what she has previously said: That her party went to the FCRB after French and European banks refused to lend it money. The loan has dogged her far-right party for years, along with her ties to Putin.
Just hours before Wednesday's debate, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny also raised the issue of the loan and stepped into the French presidential campaign, urging voters to back Macron and alleging that Le Pen is too closely linked to Russia.
In a long thread on Twitter, Navalny said the bank is tied to Putin and “is a well-known money-laundering agency.”
He did not cite any evidence other than his own investigations into corruption in Russia. But he argued the loan could be dangerous for France if Le Pen wins.
“This was not just a ‘shady deal,’” he tweeted. ”How would you like it if a French politician took a loan from Cosa Nostra? Well, this here is the same thing."
Because she is trailing in polls, Le Pen needed to land a knockout blow in the debate. But she made an inauspicious start: Having been picked to speak first, she started talking before the debate’s opening jingle had finished playing. Inaudible because of the music, she had to stop and start again. She apologized.
Once the verbal jousting began, Macron quickly put Le Pen on the defensive. He zeroed in on her voting record as a lawmaker and questioned her grasp of economic figures. Le Pen appeared most comfortable talking on topics that have long been centerpieces of her politics and her appeal to far-right voters: combatting what she called “anarchic and massive immigration" and crime.
Usually a powerful orator, Le Pen occasionally struggled for words and fluidity. She also at times lacked her characteristic pugnacity. She has sought in this campaign to soften her image and cast off the extremist label that critics have long assigned to Le Pen and her party.
Macron appeared particularly self-assured in contrast, bordering at times on arrogance — a trait that his critics have highlighted. He sat with his arms crossed as he listened to Le Pen speak.
Macron emerged ahead from the April 10 first round. But Le Pen, who has gained ground this year by tapping anger over inflation, has significantly narrowed the gap in public support compared to 2017, when she lost with 34% of the vote to Macron's 66%.
In 2017, a similar debate struck a damaging blow to her campaign, with a subpar performance from her.
Both candidates need to broaden support before Sunday's vote. Many French, especially on the left, say they still don't know whether they will even go to the polls.
Macron said the choice for voters between the two is clear.
“I fight your ideas,” he said. “I respect you as a person."
Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France. AP journalist Elaine Ganley contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the French election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022