President Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen on Thursday prepared for a final rush of campaigning before France’s presidential election after an acrimonious debate where they clashed over relations with Russia and the Islamic headscarf.France faces a stark choice in Sunday’s second-round run-off between the centrist Macron and the anti-immigration Le Pen, who will seek to become the country’s first far-right head of state in an outcome that would send shockwaves around Europe.
There are just two days of campaigning left as Saturday is a day of calm with no campaigning allowed.
On Thursday, Macron was due to meet voters in the north of Paris and Le Pen to hold a rally in the northern city of Arras.
Wednesday’s bruising three-hour live televised debate saw Macron repeatedly seeking to land punches on Le Pen over her record, while she sought to keep the focus on the government’s performance.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overshadowing the campaign, Macron angrily zeroed in on a loan Le Pen’s party had taken from a Czech-Russian bank ahead of her 2017 election campaign.
“You are dependent on the Russian government and you are dependent on Mr (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” Macron said. “When you speak to Russia you are speaking to your banker.”
Macron also referred to Le Pen’s past recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. “Why did you do this?” he asked.
Le Pen replied that she was “an absolutely and totally free woman”, arguing that her party had only taken that loan as it could not find financing in France where banks refused to lend to her.
Macron adopted a variety of poses to express scepticism at her arguments, raising his eyebrows, leaning his chin on his fists and lamenting in apparent bewilderment “Madame Le Pen… Madame Le Pen!”
She also vowed to put an end to “anarchic and massive” immigration into France, claiming it was worsening crime which she said was becoming “unbearable” for people all over the country.
The priority for Le Pen was to avoid a repeat of the 2017 run-off debate where Macron managed to make her look flustered and sometimes not on top of her brief.
She sought to put heat on the president, mocking how the “Mozart of finance” had left a “bad” economic legacy that included an extra 600 billion euros ($650 billion) in national debt.
“It’s not Gerard Majax (on TV) this evening,” retorted Macron, referring to a well-known French television conjurer. “You never explain how you will finance your projects and you are not honest with people.”
Turning to Europe, Le Pen insisted she wanted to stay in the European Union but reform the bloc into an “alliance of nations”.
“Your policy is to leave Europe,” Macron responded, describing the election as a “referendum for or against the EU”.
There were also intense exchanges on daily concerns such as the rising cost of living, which Le Pen has made a major feature of her campaign.