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French President Macron and Le Pen clash on Russia, immigration in televised debate

LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

(SAINT-DENIS, France) — French President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, his far-right rival in the presidential elections, faced off in a highly anticipated televised debate Wednesday, clashing on topics from the cost of living to Le Pen’s softer stance on Russia.

Macron and Le Pen took the top two spots in the preliminary round of voting earlier this month, just as they did in 2017. The debate of that year proved disastrous for Le Pen, who struggled under questioning. That year Macron ultimately won a sweeping victory in 2017, winning 66% of the vote.

During the two-and-a-half hour long debate on Wednesday, Le Pen’s performance under pressure was much improved. Even so, Le Pen faced a string of attacks from Macron regarding her stance on Russia. Macron criticized Le Pen’s stance on the Russian annexation of Crimea, which she previously spoke out in favor of and which led her to being banned from entering Ukraine in 2017.

“Why did you do it?” he said. “And I say this with great gravity tonight. Because for our country, this is bad news, because you depend on the Russian power and you depend on Mr. Putin.”

Macron described Russia as Le Pen’s “banker” because of a loan her party received in 2014 from a Czech-Russian bank. Le Pen said Macron’s allegations were false.

Le Pen has sought to soften her National Rally party’s image and ease voters’ concerns about a far-right president. Macron, meanwhile, has been a notably absent figure on the campaign trail.

Le Pen described herself as the “common sense” candidate during Wednesday night’s debate.

“I truly want to make purchasing power the priority of my next five-year term, if the French have confidence in me,” she said. Macron, known for his strong grasp of policy detail, but also a tendency to patronize, attempted to dismantle Le Pen’s claims that if elected she would immediately develop France’s nuclear power production and boost wages by 10%.

The pair also clashed on France’s relationship with the EU and Le Pen’s hard-line stance on immigration, with Macron saying she would ban the right of Muslim women to wear headscarfs in public.

Overall, however, there appeared to be no losers in Wednesday night’s debate, with neither side landing a knockout blow ahead of the final round of voting this weekend.

Polling in France has shown an upswing in Le Pen’s popularity and decline in Macron’s, though the French president — who has been accused of arrogance by pundits and voters in the past — retains a narrow lead in most reported opinion polls.

The war in Ukraine has dominated the headlines this campaign cycle, and Le Pen has faced criticism in France for a softer approach to Russia and past support for President Vladimir Putin. While she has said she is in favor of the broad package of sanctions announced by the French government, she has publicly opposed restrictions on oil and gas imports from Russia, citing concerns about the rising cost of living in France that has become a critical issue in the campaign.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an interview with French television channel BFMTV ahead of the debate on Wednesday, went as far as to urge Le Pen to reconsider her position on Russia.

“If the candidate were to understand that she was wrong, our relationship could change,” Zelenskyy said. While ensuring not “to have the right to influence” the French electoral campaign, Zelenskyy recognized that “obviously, I have relations with Emmanuel Macron and I would not want to lose them.”

Ultimately the final outcome of the election may well be decided by matters closer to home, however, with Macron’s team touting his experience in power at a time of stability, while Le Pen’s campaign has targeted the incumbent for, they say, being out of touch with ordinary people.

The far-right candidate focused her campaign on purchasing power, a topic expected to be one of the main factors in deciding the outcome of the election. Le Pen’s project, however, still centers on the fight against immigration. The National Rally candidate has presented several flagship proposals, including a bill to drastically limit immigration, the abolition of the right of soil, and restricting the routes for people to claim asylum in France.

“Fear is the only argument that the current president has to try and stay in power at all cost,” Le Pen said in a clip posted by her campaign Tuesday.

Much will depend on which candidate the supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon turn to in the final round. Mélenchon secured 22% of the first round of voting in third place, and while he publicly told his supporters not to vote for Le Pen, her populist vision may prove more enticing to a base dissatisfied with Macron, a centrist with a background in the financial sector.

The debate was the first and only time voters will have a chance to see the candidates face off ahead of the final round of voting on April 24.

ABC News’ Ibtissem Guenfoud contributed to this report.

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