French President Emmanuel Macron has attacked his far-right election rival, Marine Le Pen, over her links to Russia during a televised debate.
The two politicians discussed a wide range of topics, including immigration, the country’s foreign policy, and the cost of living, as they fought for the backing of voters.
Mr Macron claimed Ms Le Pen has made herself “dependent” on Russian President Vladimir Putin after taking out a loan from a Russian bank.
In an assault on his competitor’s credentials, the French leader said: “You don’t speak to other leaders, you speak to your banker when you speak to Russia, that’s the problem.”
“None of us went to seek financing from a Russian bank, and especially not from one that is close to power in Russia,” he added.
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His comments refer to a loan Ms Le Pen’s party took out with a Russian-Czech bank in 2014.
The 53-year-old hit back at Mr Macron’s comments by explaining that her party is repaying the loan and describing him as “dishonest” for raising the issue.
Banning headscarves would cause ‘civil war’
Mr Macron also warned that Ms Le Pen’s proposed measure to ban Muslim headscarves in public spaces would create a “civil war” if it was implemented.
Ms Le Pen claimed she is fighting radical Islam not Muslims: “I am not carrying out a war against their religion,” she said.
“I’m telling it in a very clear manner: I think the headscarf is a uniform imposed by Islamists
“I think a great proportion of young women who are wearing it have no other choice in reality.”
Mr Macron replied: “What you’re saying is very serious. You’re going to create civil war if you do it.”
He said France would be “the first country in the world to ban religious displays in public spaces.”
‘I will be the president of the cost of living’
During the debate, Mr Macron pointed out his success with job creation, with unemployment in the country currently at a 13-year low.
But the two candidates kept accusing each other of failing to respond to voters’ real concerns, with Ms Le Pen saying that “in real life” her proposals would improve the situation for people much more than her opponent’s policies.
She added that the French president’s cost of living plans would be “inefficient” and “unfair”.
“I will make it my absolute priority over the next five years to give the French their money back,” Ms Le Pen said, adding that the French had “suffered” throughout Mr Macron’s mandate.
“I will be the president of the cost of living,” she said.
In the final French election run-off, people vote for the candidate they dislike least
Protester tackled to the ground after holding up picture of Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin
Mr Macron argued many of Ms Le Pen’s proposals were unrealistic and her idea to slash VAT to improve purchasing power was “inaccurate”.
Who is leading in the polls?
The debate marked the only time the two potential leaders have faced off on television ahead of Sunday’s runoff vote.
In 2017, a similar debate struck a decisive blow to Ms Le Pen’s campaign after she mixed up her notes and lost her footing.
At the moment, Mr Macron, a pro-European centrist, continues to lead in opinion polls.
But Ms Le Pen, an anti-immigration nationalist who has gained ground this year by tapping anger over inflation, has significantly narrowed the gap in public support compared to five years ago when she lost with 34% of the vote to Mr Macron’s 66%.
The election presents voters with two opposing visions of France: Mr Macron offers a pro-European, liberal platform, while Ms Le Pen’s nationalist manifesto is founded on deep Euroscepticism.