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PARIS (AP) — President Emmanuel Macron made an unprecedented direct attack on far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Wednesday, using a key television debate ahead of Sunday’s election to accuse her of actually being on the Kremlin payroll.
Macron’s accusations of Russian support were a moment of heightened tension in a two-and-a-half-hour televised debate that pitted the two candidates against each other on a range of issues including the EU, pensions and energy.
The French president accused the leader of the National Rally party of being “dependent on Vladimir Putin” and unable to “defend French interests” because of party loans taken from a Russian bank close to the Kremlin.
Despite Macron’s unrestrained attack on Russia, Le Pen fared better on Wednesday than she did during a similar TV debate against Macron at the same stage of the campaign in 2017, when she faltered throughout the debate mixing up her arguments and fumbling for her notes. . All in all, neither side seemed to deliver a knockout blow.
On Putin’s payroll
On the war in Ukraine, Macron put Le Pen in the rear from the beginning of the debate. “You depend on Russia and you depend on Mr. Putin,” the president said, referring to a loan Le Pen’s party obtained with a Czech-Russian bank “close to the Russian leadership.”
“When you talk to Russia, you are not talking to any foreign leader, you are talking to your banker,” he stressed. This is not the first time that Macron has attacked his opponent in Russia, referring to his alleged complacency, but he has rarely criticized her so openly.
Le Pen’s ties to Russia have been a thorn in her campaign’s side even as she has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tried to distance herself from previous pro-Putin statements. During the debate, Le Pen made sure to express her “absolute solidarity and compassion” with Ukraine and criticized the Russian aggression as “inadmissible.”
Macron smelled blood at this stage, accusing her of changing her tune due to recent events, against her party’s “historic positions” on Russia. The president even drew a link between Le Pen’s refusal to condemn the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his success in obtaining a Russian loan in 2015.
“As soon as important and courageous decisions have to be made, neither you nor your leaders are there… You cannot defend the interests of France because your interests are linked to Russia,” he said, adding references to his party’s refusal to support a round of sanctions against Russia in the European Parliament.
Visibly cornered, the far-right leader replied that she was “an absolutely and totally free woman” and that she was forced to seek a foreign loan because no French bank would lend her. The far-right leader tried to turn Macron around, accusing him of courting the Russian leader by inviting him to France during his term, but with little success. “I invited a foreign leader, not my banker,” he replied.
Crusade against free trade
Brussels’ trade policy emerged as an intense bone of contention during the debate, despite both candidates agreeing on the risks of allowing European markets to be too open to foreign imports.
When Le Pen accused Macron of embodying the EU model of free trade, the incumbent had to walk a difficult line between defending the merits of the free market and reassuring French farmers and French public opinion in general.
The right-wing candidate resorted to classic anti-trade repertoire – warning against “Brazilian chicken” and “Canadian beef” – and attacked Macron for failing to protect French farmers and consumers from food products arriving from abroad. In response, Macron tried to cast himself as the main opponent of a trade deal between the EU and South American Mercosur countries over environmental concerns.
Capitalizing on the zeitgeist, Le Pen put an environmental spin on her crusade against free trade, which used to be largely based on economic patriotism.
“I believe that the economic model based on free trade, which consists of producing 10,000 km away to consume 10,000 km further away, is destroying the planet,” Le Pen said, noting that trade is “responsible for most of greenhouse gas emissions”. Therefore, he explained, “he built [her] The whole project around localism… to consume as close as possible”.
In recent months, both candidates have pledged to protect French farmers and consumers from imports of agri-food products.
With France currently holding the rotating presidency of the EU Council, the Macron government has pushed to stop imports of products that are not produced to the same strict standards as in the EU and has suspended negotiations on new trade deals, raises concern among more liberal EU countries. Le Pen’s program goes further as he wants to exclude all agri-food products from trade agreements.
Pensions in numbers
Le Pen and Macron traded criticism over pension reform, with Macron defending his unpopular decision to raise the retirement age and Le Pen trying to cast herself as the defender of the French worker.
In France, all workers receive a state pension at the end of their working life, which means that setting a retirement age has a huge impact on state finances. Macron wants to push the legal retirement age back to 64 or 65 if he is re-elected. Le Pen wants to keep him between 60 and 62 years old.
“My project is clearly different from Mr Macron’s project, which wants everyone to work until they are 65 years old,” he said. “It is an absolutely unbearable injustice.”
With a more generous pension system, the far-right leader is trying to appeal to blue-collar voters, many of whom start their careers young and work in difficult professions. Retirement age is a cornerstone of Le Pen’s campaign platform, which focuses on welfare and cost-of-living issues rather than her usual immigration and security issues. The National Rally also hopes they will appeal to far-left voters, for whom pensions are an important issue.
Pensions are a thorny issue for Macron, who is trying to attract leftist voters before the second round. On Wednesday he chose to attack his opponent for the credibility of his generous proposals.
“You never explain how you would finance [pensions]… you are not honest with people,” he said. “So either you have hidden taxes or you are threatening the balance of [our pensions system].”
Climate Skeptic vs. Climate Hypocrite
Macron and Le Pen clashed on their climate policies. Macron accused his opponent of being a “climate skeptic” and Le Pen replied that Macron was a “climate hypocrite”.
Although Le Pen said that she was not against seeking a green transition, she thought that “it should be much less rapid” and blamed “the economic model based on international free trade” for “the majority” of greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse.
Le Pen wrote in her manifesto that, if elected, she would “assess” and set France’s carbon dioxide emission reduction target annually and “depending on the trajectories of other countries and the will of the French people and their quality of life.” “. That is likely to make it difficult for France to stay on track and achieve its goals under the Paris climate agreement and the European Green Deal, something Le Pen wants to “get out of.”
Macron has been pitching more green ideas and adapting his project after the first round of the presidential election in an effort to appeal to left-wing and undecided voters.
On Wednesday, however, both candidates agreed on one thing: the development of new nuclear power reactors to reduce the country’s dependence on energy imports.
At the start of his term, Macron pledged to cut nuclear power’s share of the country’s electricity mix from 70 percent to 50 percent. Le Pen accused him of taking a U-turn on the issue.
However, the two rivals for the presidency disagreed on the role of nuclear energy in the green transition. Le Pen wants to make nuclear power a cornerstone of his energy policy, dismantling existing wind farms and banning the construction of new solar and wind power plants. Macron, on the other hand, insisted that “there is no strategy to exit fossil fuels only with nuclear power” and that new investments in renewable energies are needed in parallel. France, for now, has not achieved its targets under the EU Renewable Energy Directive and is therefore under pressure from the EU to increase its renewable energy capacity.
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