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Macron fends off Le Pen in debate, heads toward reelection

French President Emmanuel Macron took a big step toward reelection by not flubbing a debate with his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen ahead of Sunday's runoff election.

(CN) — French President Emmanuel Macron, the 44-year-old pro-European centrist neoliberal, took a big step toward reelection this Sunday with a combative televised debate Wednesday night against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen.

The nearly three-hour debate saw Macron and Le Pen lay out very different visions for France. This election is a rematch between Macron and Le Pen, who met in a runoff five years ago.

In recent weeks, Le Pen, the 53-year-old leader of the former openly xenophobic National Front party, has emerged as a formidable rival by focusing her campaign on the economic hardships many French feel after two years of the coronavirus pandemic and soaring inflation due to the war in Ukraine. She wants to lower taxes, raise wages and keep intact France's generous system of government benefits.

But Le Pen's momentum has stalled and Macron, despite his unpopularity after five difficult years at the helm, has a solid lead in recent polls.

By the time Wednesday's debate ended just before midnight, there were no knockout punches or flubs that could definitely swing the election, but Macron came across as the more agile debater in possession of nuance and detail.

The president, though, also was seen as condescending, arrogant and annoyed throughout the debate, a performance that will only add to his image as a politician out of touch with the struggles of ordinary French. Le Pen finds most of her support among rural, small business and working-class voters.

Macron spoke of the supranational European Union as a force for good while Le Pen argued that France must regain its sovereignty and strengthen itself through less global free trade while also closing France off from immigration and outlawing Muslim women from wearing the veil.

“France is a global power, we have to renew our ambitions as a global power,” Le Pen said.

She blasted Macron for policies that increased taxes and diluted government subsidies enjoyed by many.

Macron, too, has presented plans to offset rising poverty, such as a cap on energy prices and a scheme to encourage employers to provide workers with bonuses.

While Le Pen has made bread-and-butter issues the core of her campaign, Macron, a former investment banker, poked holes in his rival's plans.

“Macron has just given an economics tutorial to Le Pen,” said Philippe Marliere, a French politics professor at University College London, commenting on Twitter. “Purchasing power was supposed to be her forte. By the end of the exchange, Le Pen looked worried. She offers no alternative to Macron’s economics.”

Still, Macron was put on the defensive too as Le Pen reminded voters of various unpopular schemes her rival had pushed during his presidency, such as introducing a fuel tax that sparked the violent “yellow vest” anti-Macron protests in 2018 and plans to raise the retirement age to 65.

“Your economic track record is horrible,” she said. “Your words have been brutal, you have divided this country.”

Macron repeatedly attacked Le Pen for her friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a past election, Le Pen received a loan from a Russian bank and her party is still paying off that debt.

“You are in fact in Russia's grip,” Macron said. “It is a dependency issue.”

Le Pen retorted by alleging that Macron, as a former economics minister under the Socialist government of Francois Hollande, had made it impossible for her far-right party to get a loan from a French bank.

“You know I am a completely free woman, I am a patriot,” Le Pen declared.

Still, she took a much less confrontational approach toward Russia over the war in Ukraine. She said providing weapons to Kyiv could lead to France becoming a “co-belligerent” and spoke out against an embargo on Russian oil and natural gas because that would hurt French people.

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“We cannot fall on our own swords,” she said.

She also said Europe must not drive “Russia into the arms of China,” which she said could become a superpower with their combined strengths.

Perhaps the most stark difference between the two is over the EU.

Le Pen denied that she backs France exiting the EU, but she said the EU must be overhauled. In the past, her party has advocated leaving the bloc, a position held by many far-right nationalist politicians in Europe who despise the EU's supranational powers, rules and laws.

Le Pen said she wants a “Europe of nations” with France being a country that puts French people first.

“We need economic patriotism,” she said.

Macron said Europe must become even more united as a single market to create the kind of global companies found in the U.S. and China.

“We need a European market, European-wide companies, European-wide regulation,” Macron said.

In speaking about climate change, Le Pen called free trade and the system of moving goods around the planet as the cause of much of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions.

“This model is killing the planet and that is why I believe in local sourcing,” she said. “We need to stop importing 50% of our fruits and vegetables when we can produce them.”

She said France must move away from fossil fuels at a slower pace than current plans call for and that nuclear energy must play a pivotal role. France already relies heavily on nuclear power.

Le Pen also opposes the erection of more wind turbines and vowed to hold a referendum on the matter if elected.

“You are a climate skeptic, that is pretty obvious,” Macron said.

Macron said France must move even faster toward reducing greenhouse gases. He touted better insulation in buildings and helping French buy cleaner cars as policies he'd push.

“I'm not a climate change skeptic,” Le Pen rebutted. “But I think you're climate change hypocrite.”

She said Macron's policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “have been brutal to working-class, middle-class” French who can't afford to buy hybrid and electric cars.

“Punitive ecology is something that creates suffering,” she said.

“It is always the same people who get hurt, get fleeced.”

On the topic of immigration, Le Pen called for an end to “unbridled mass immigration” and said immigrants who are not legal residents in France must be deported.

Macron called Le Pen's approach to immigration inhumane and against European values.

Le Pen also said she favors banning women from wearing the Muslim headscarf in public places, arguing Muslim women are forced to wear them.

Macron said such a ban would be unconstitutional and vehemently opposed by many Muslims. It “would cause civil war in suburbs” of French cities, he said. Many Muslims live in poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of French cities.

“Imagine your France where you'd have police officers run down the street after women wearing hijabs,” Macron said.

In the weeks before the first round of voting on April 10, Le Pen was rising in the polls and seemed to be within striking distance of Macron, setting many in Europe on edge because a Le Pen victory would be a shocking rebuke by French voters of the EU and NATO. Le Pen has a history of nationalist anti-EU rhetoric and she's also called for France to become less involved in NATO.

But in recent days, Macron has succeeded in stopping any further slide and he's begun to open up a considerable lead over Le Pen, according to opinion polls. Macron is expected to take between 53% and 56% of the vote Sunday and seems likely to become the first French incumbent president since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to win reelection.

Wednesday's one-off debate then was seen as a pivotal chance for both candidates to win over undecided voters. Five years ago, Le Pen's debate performance was a debacle and pundits say it doomed any chance she had to win. But she came into Wednesday's debate much better prepared and held up for the most part to the scrutiny as the two candidates faced off with journalists moderating.

“Macron won this debate head and shoulders from a policy and delivery point of view,” Marliere, the French politics professor, said. “But Le Pen knows how to engage her audience, their fears and dislikes. Macron is an articulate techno with zero social skills. In the end, it is a match nul,” a draw.

The election may hinge on winning over the 7.7 million people who voted in the first round for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. Melenchon told his supporters to not vote for Le Pen, but he did not endorse Macron.

France first adopted an American-style debate in its presidential contests in 1974, when Socialist Francois Mitterrand took on centrist candidate Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Only one debate is held between the runoff candidates.

The number of people tuning into the televised debates has steadily decreased since a peak of 30 million in 1981, when Mitterrand and Giscard d'Estaing faced off once again ahead of Mitterrand's first election win. In 2017, 16.5 million French watched the debate, the lowest number ever.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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