PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron tried to hold off a challenge from far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on Wednesday, painting her as beholden to Russian interests and more radical than she would acknowledge, in the only debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential runoff election.
Ultimately, the almost three-hour televised encounter may not significantly help or hurt either candidate — meaning the race may remain tight to the finish. Le Pen has slipped slightly in opinion polls over the past days and is about eight percentage points behind Macron.
The state of the French economy and the fallout of the war in Ukraine took center stage at the debate.
“You depend on the Russian leadership and you depend on Mr. Putin,” Macron charged, noting Le Pen’s past admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia,” he said, referencing a past loan to Le Pen from a Russian state bank.
“I am an absolutely and totally free woman,” Le Pen responded.
Le Pen sought to position herself as a strong supporter of Ukraine, declaring her “solidarity and absolute compassion for the Ukrainian people.” But she said she remains opposed to banning Russian oil and gas in response to the war, arguing it would hurt French people more than Russia.
In her opening remarks, she emphasized what has been the central argument of her campaign: that she is closer than Macron to the concerns of the French people.
“I know our people well,” she said, “and for the past five years I’ve had to witness them suffer and worry.” She described her ideas as “common sense.”
On the whole, she appeared more at ease than in 2017, even when the highly scripted and precisely timed debate began with a false start: Le Pen started to speak while the opening music was still playing. She shrugged off the fumble with a laugh, and opened with a pledge to be the president of “justice,” of “national fraternity” and “of the restored harmony among the French.”
“Marine Le Pen needed to correct her image of incompetence and aggressiveness. Her limitations were still evident, but she was able to remain more serene, more calm. This in itself is a real victory for her,” said Alexis Lévrier, a media historian at the University of Reims.
Macron perhaps had the greater challenge. His position as the incumbent left him more exposed to criticism than five years ago. He needed to defend his record and put a spotlight on her potential weaknesses — including her controversial anti-immigration proposals. But he also needed to walk a fine line between rebutting her criticism and not appearing outright dismissive of themes that matter to voters.
He didn’t always succeed.
At various points, Macron accused Le Pen of “mixing everything up” and “talking nonsense.” He interjected: “Are you kidding me or what?”
Nathalie Schuck, a political journalist with the French magazine Le Point, said on the France 2 television channel that Macron’s body language, particularly his tendency to look toward the moderators during the debate, could have come off as “not very respectful for his opponent.”
“That poses a problem,” she said, arguing that “some of the voters who are turning toward [Le Pen’s] candidacy are people who themselves do not feel respected. So the fact that he averted his gaze, from a symbolic point of view, it wasn’t great.”
Macron “cut her off several times, and he often gave the impression of making fun of her, of not taking her seriously,” Lévrier said.
“In short, (Macron) largely dominated the debate on the substance, but less clearly than in 2017. And above all, he probably lost it on the form, by not managing to correct the negative image that part of the country has of him,” Lévrier said.
Macron tried to strike a conciliatory tone in his closing statement.
“I fight against your ideas, I fight against the party that is yours, and its history and its political positioning, but I respect you as a person, and I want to convince all those who may have followed you,” he said.
He characterized the election as a referendum on Europe, the environment and French values — topics that may resonate with the left-wing voters whose choices to support one of the candidates or abstain could tip the election.
Le Pen has sought to moderate her image and her positions in this campaign. Macron suggested that voters shouldn’t buy it.
“When one puts back together your project brick by brick, it’s a project that’s about getting out of the E.U., even if it doesn’t explicitly say so,” he said at one point. And at another: “Your project is very transparent, you are a [climate change skeptic].”
Le Pen replied to that by calling him a “climate hypocrite.”
She was most critical of his performance on the economy.
Even though France’s economy has emerged more robustly from the pandemic than those of some of its neighbors, Le Pen’s campaign has gained momentum by echoing a sentiment that economic growth hasn’t benefited most citizens. Preexisting concerns over rising inflation, energy prices and the cost of living have been further amplified by the impact of the war in Ukraine.
“The ‘Mozart of finance’ has a very bad record on the economy and an even worse record on social issues,” said Le Pen, referring to a nickname for Macron, who used to be an investment banker.
“The ‘covid debt,’ it’s 600 billion euros, I fully stand by it,” Macron said in his defense, adding that his government helped restaurateurs and small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic with state-backed loans and other measures.
Macron has proposed extending some of his current policies, including a cap on electricity and natural gas prices that was introduced last year. He has also promised additional tax cuts and more spending on green energy if he wins a second five-year term. Macron has framed his proposals as more realistic than Le Pen’s. The far-right leader wants to scrap income taxes for anyone younger than 30, cut taxes on energy and many basic goods, and go on a government spending spree.
Proposed changes to France’s retirement age also came under scrutiny during Wednesday’s debate. Macron has proposed raising it from 62 to 64 or 65 — an “unbearable injustice,” according to Le Pen, who wants to keep the current age and lower it for some workers.
The candidates’ teams had haggled over every detail of the debate — from the temperature in the room to the lighting and the size of the table — with the broadcasters in charge of the debate, under the supervision of France’s communications regulator.
The mood was tense overall, with one notable moment of levity: Both candidates were in agreement that they didn’t have enough time to discuss security, and Macron said, “We are much more disciplined than five years ago, Mrs. Le Pen.” Le Pen agreed and joked that it was because both of them were getting older.
Macron, 44, was France’s youngest president when he was elected in 2017. Le Pen is 53.
Throughout the debate, Macron sought to put a spotlight on the proposals that have long limited her party’s chances of winning over more moderate or leftist voters, including her anti-immigration platform.
“Anarchic and massive immigration is aggravating the insecurity in our country,” said Le Pen, who on Wednesday reiterated her determination to fine women for wearing headscarves in public.
“You will create civil war if you do that,” Macron warned in response.
Timsit reported from London.