Macron, Le Pen Clash on Russia, EU in TV Debate

Macron, Le Pen Clash on Russia, EU in TV Debate
French President Emmanuel Macron (L), candidate for his reelection, and Rassemblement National party presidential candidate Marine Le Pen sit prior to taking part in a French presidential election debate, in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, France, on April 20, 2022. (Ludovic Marin/Pool via Reuters)

PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday clashed with his rival Marine Le Pen during a fiery TV debate ahead of Sunday's election.

Macron attacked Le Pen for her ties to Russia and also charged her with harboring a desire to pull France out of the European Union (EU). Le Pen struck back with a pledge to put money back in the pockets of millions of French made poorer during Macron's five-year presidency.

The debate—their only one of the campaign—was peppered with appeals of "don't interrupt me" and accusations the other was not up to the job of leading France, a veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member and Europe's second-largest economy.

"Stop mixing everything up," a combative Macron told Le Pen during one heated exchange about France's debt, which like others has swollen due to pandemic support measures.

"Don't lecture me," responded Le Pen.

Macron's strongest lines of attack were on a loan to her party for its 2017 campaign contracted through a Russian bank.

"You depend on the Russian power, you depend on Mr. Putin," Macron told his opponent.

"A lot of your choices can be explained by this dependence," he said in an attack on Le Pen's policy positions which he said still included a "project which dare not speak its name" to withdraw France from the 27-member EU.

Le Pen dismissed both the charge of wanting to leave the EU and of being compromised politically by the Russian bank loan.

"I am a completely free and independent woman," she said.

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' situations much more than her opponent.

"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.

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.

With both candidates dismissing the other's plans as unrealistic but not scoring any obvious knock-out blows, it may not be clear what impact the debate has on the electorate.

Only 14 percent of voters were waiting for the debate to decide who to vote for, while 12 percent said it would be decisive for whether they will vote at all, a poll by OpinionWay-Kea Partners for Les Echos newspaper showed.

Macron's lead in opinion polls is much narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1 percent of the vote.