STORY: French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen locked horns on Wednesday in a high stakes election debate, their only one before Sunday’s presidential election.
The angry face-off saw them spar over the war in Ukraine – specifically Le Pen’s links to Russia – as well as the economy, the idea of a hijab ban, and the European Union.
Macron's strongest line of attack against his rival was her past admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a loan for her 2017 campaign contracted through a Russian bank.
Macron: “You depend on the Russian power, you depend on Mr Putin. A few months after saying that Madame Le Pen, you took out a loan from a Russian bank in 2015, First Czech Russian Bank."
Le Pen rejected the accusations.
“He knows very well that I am a completely free and independent woman.”
For Le Pen, who lags Macron in voter surveys, by as much as 56-44 the debate was a chance to persuade voters she has the stature to be president.
Le Pen has toned down her once staunchly anti-EU rhetoric as part of a bid to broaden her electoral appeal.
She pledged to “give money back” to millions of French made poorer during Macron’s five-year presidency, but she continued her far-right anti-hijab stance:
Le Pen: "I want to ban the hijab in the public space. I think, and I’ll say it in the clearest possible way, that the veil is a uniform imposed by Islamists."
Voters will be reckoning with two opposing visions of France:
Macron offers a pro-European, liberal platform, while Le Pen's nationalist manifesto is founded on deep Euroscepticism.
A snap poll conducted for the BFM TV channel showed that 59% of respondents found Macron the more convincing of the two.
However, Macron's lead in opinion polls is much narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote.