(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.