Le Pen, Macron clash in high-stakes French election debate
French voters go to the polls in a runoff vote on Sunday
In a heated, high-pressure prime time TV debate, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron warned of "civil war" if his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen is elected, saying Wednesday that her hard-line plans to combat Islamic radicals would play into their hands. She painted him as subservient to Islamic extremism, saying: "They control you."
The barbed exchange over France's fight against terrorism characterized the ill-tempered tone of the debate. Both candidates sought to land damaging blows, in a clash of styles, politics and personalities that highlighted their polar-opposite visions and plans for France.
Le Pen painted the former banker and economy minister as a servant of big business and finance, and declared herself "the candidate of the people, of the France that we love."
Saying that Islamic extremists must be "eradicated" in the wake of repeated attacks since 2015, Le Pen charged that Macron wouldn't be up to the task.
"You won't do that," she charged.
Macron countered that Le Pen's anti-terror plans would play into the hands of the extremists and divide France, adding that this is "what the terrorists expect. It's civil war, it's division, it's heinous speech."
No common ground
Sitting opposite one another at a round table, the debate quickly became a shouting match, with no common ground between the pro-European Union centrist candidate and the anti-EU Le Pen.
She had piles of notes in coloured folders on her side of the table, and referred to them occasionally. His side of the table was sparser, with just a few sheets of paper. He at times rested his chin on his hands as she spoke.
They clashed over France's finances, its future and their respective proposals for tackling its ills. He scoffed at her monetary plans, saying reintroducing a franc for purchases within France but allowing big firms to continue using the shared euro currency that Le Pen wants to abandon made no sense.
She dismissed his economic proposals with sweeping critiques and bristled at his suggestions that she didn't understand how finance and business works.
"You're trying to play with me like a professor with a pupil," she said.
Foreign policy clash
They also clashed over foreign policy, with Le Pen saying that Macron would be in the pocket of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Either way France will be led by a woman; either me or Madame Merkel," she said derisively.
Later in the debate, Macron fired back telling Le Pen "France deserves better than you."
The debate offered risk and reward for both. A major trip-up or meltdown beamed direct into the homes of millions of electors could dent their presidential ambitions in the closing stages of the intense, suspenseful campaign that has, already, steered France into uncharted territory. The first round of voting on April 23 eliminated mainstream parties from the left and right and propelled the 39-year-old Macron, who has no major party backing, and the 48-year-old Le Pen into the winner-takes-all runoff on Sunday.
Macron at times got the upper hand with his repeated suggestions that Le Pen didn't have a good grasp of facts. He saved his choicest attack for the closing minutes, in a sharp-tongued monologue that targeted one of Le Pen's biggest vulnerabilities: her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme-right former presidential candidate repeatedly convicted for hate speech and who founded her party, the National Front.
Throughout, Macron portrayed Marine Le Pen as an empty shell, shaky on details, seeking to profit politically by stirring up hatred and the anger of French voters — a dominant theme of the campaign — without feasible proposals. He called her "the high priestess of fear."
"Your project consists of telling the French people, 'This person is horrible.' It's to cast dirt. It's to lead a campaign of lies and falsifications. Your project lives off fear and lies. That's what sustains you. That's what sustained your father for decades. That's what nourished the extreme right and that is what created you," Macron said. "You are its parasite."
"What class!" Le Pen retorted.