© Reuters. A woman walks past official campaign posters of French presidential election candidates Marine le Pen, leader of French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party, and French President Emmanuel Macron, candidate for his re-election, displayed
By Ingrid Melander, Elizabeth Pineau and Tassilo Hummel
PARIS (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen clashed in a heated debate on Wednesday over who would be best placed to improve voters’ purchasing power and lead the country, in their only confrontation before Sunday’s election.
The televised debate was tense throughout, peppered with “don’t interrupt me,” “this is wrong,” and accusations from each to the other of having a shrivelled, unambitious vision of France and its future.
“Stop mixing everything up,” a combative Macron told Le Pen during a tense exchange about France’s debt.
“Don’t lecture me,” Le Pen responded, attacking her rival on his record in office and avoiding the pitfalls of their previous debate, in 2017, when her presidential bid unravelled as she mixed up her notes and lost her footing.
For Le Pen, who lags Macron in voter surveys, the much awaited debate was a chance to persuade voters she has the stature to be president and they should not fear seeing the far-right in power.
“I will make it my absolute priority over the next five years to give the French their money back,” Le Pen said, adding that the French had “suffered” throughout Macron’s mandate.
“I would like to tell them that another choice is possible,” Le Pen said, adding: “I will be the president of the cost of living.”
One of Macron’s strongest lines of attack against his far-right rival was her past admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a loan for the 2017 campaign contracted through a Russian bank.
“You depend on the Russian power, you depend on Mr Putin. You took out a loan from a Russian bank,” Macron told his opponent.
“A lot of your choices can be explained by this dependence,” he said, adding: “You don’t speak to other leaders, you speak to your banker when you speak to Russia, that’s the problem.”
In the heated exchange on Russia, during which Macron at one point told Le Pen “Are you kidding me?” Le Pen rejected the accusations, saying: “I am a completely free and independent woman.”
The debate, which started at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT), was due to last 2-1/2 hours.
With unemployment at a 13-year low, Macron said he was proud of job creation during his term and added: “the best way to gain purchasing power is to fight unemployment.”
The two candidates kept accusing each other of failing to respond to voters’ real concerns, with Le Pen saying that “in real life” her proposals would improve voters’ situation much more than her opponent, while Macron said many of her proposals were not realistic.
“Mrs Le Pen, what you said is inaccurate,” Macron told his opponent about her proposals to slash VAT to improve purchasing power. Le Pen said Macron’s cost of living proposals would be inefficient and unfair.
Some 14% of voters were waiting for the debate to decide who to vote for, while 12% said it would be decisive for whether they will vote at all, a poll by OpinionWay-Kea Partners for Les Echos newspaper showed.
The election presents voters with two opposing visions of France: Macron offers a pro-European, liberal platform, while Le Pen’s nationalist manifesto is founded on deep euroscepticism.
Much haggling went on behind the scenes ahead of the debate, from the temperature of the room to flipping a coin to decide which theme they would start with – the cost of living – to who would speak first – Le Pen.
After more than half of the electorate voted for far-right or hard left candidates in the first round on April 10, Macron’s lead in opinion polls is much narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote. Voter surveys on Wednesday projected he would win with 55.5-56.5% this time.
Macron is no longer the disruptor from outside politics that he was in the 2017 debate, which at the time cemented his status as the clear front-runner.
Le Pen has tacked towards mainstream voters and worked hard at softening her image.