Macron accuses Le Pen of being on Putin’s payroll – POLITICO

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PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron launched an unprecedented direct attack on far-right leader Marine Le Pen on Wednesday, using a key televised debate ahead of Sunday’s election to accuse her of effectively being on the Kremlin’s payroll.

Macron’s allegations of Russian support were a high-tension moment in a two-and-a-half-hour televised debate that saw the two candidates spar on a range of issues including the EU, pensions and energy.

The French president accused the National Rally party leader of being “dependent on Vladimir Putin” and “unable to defend French interests” over party loans at a Russian bank close to the Kremlin.

Despite Macron’s all-out attack on Russia, Le Pen performed better Wednesday than during a similar TV debate against Macron at the same stage of the 2017 election campaign, when she stumbled through the debate, muddled her arguments and muddled her notes. Overall, neither party seemed to land a knockout punch.

On Putin’s payroll

On the war in Ukraine, Macron pushed Le Pen to the rear early on in the debate. “You depend on Russia, and you depend on Mr. Putin,” the president said, referring to a loan Le Pen’s party received from a Czech-Russian bank “close to the Russian leadership.”

“When you talk to Russia, don’t talk to a foreign leader, you talk to your banker,” he stressed. It is not the first time Macron has attacked his Russia opponent, invoking her alleged complacency, but he has rarely attacked her so directly.

Le Pen’s ties to Russia have been a thorn in the side of her campaign, although she has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and sought to distance herself from previous pro-Putin statements. During the debate, Le Pen stressed her “absolute solidarity and sympathy” with Ukraine and criticized the Russian aggression as “unacceptable”.

Macron smelled blood at the time, accusing her of changing her stance in the wake of recent events, contrary to her party’s “historic positions” on Russia. The president went so far as to make a connection between Le Pen’s refusal to condemn the 2014 annexation of Crimea and her success in obtaining a Russian loan in 2015.

“As soon as there are important and bold decisions to be made, neither you nor your leaders are there…. You cannot defend France’s interests because your interests are linked to Russia,” he said, adding references to her 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 foreign credit because no French bank would lend her. The far-right leader tried to turn the tables on Macron by accusing him of courting the Russian leader who had invited him to France during his tenure, but with little success. “I invited a foreign leader, not my banker,” he replied.

Crusade against free trade

Brussels’ trade policy emerged as a major bone of contention during the debate, although both candidates agreed that there was a risk of over-opening European markets to foreign imports.

When Le Pen accused Macron of embodying the EU’s free trade model, the incumbent had to walk a difficult line between defending the merits of the free market and reassuring French farmers and French public opinion more broadly.

The right-wing candidate resorted to classic anti-trade repertoire – warning of “Brazilian chickens” and “Canadian beef” – and attacked Macron for failing to protect French farmers and consumers from an inundation of food from outside. In response, Macron sought to portray himself as the main opponent of a trade deal between the EU and South America’s Mercosur countries over environmental concerns.

Seizing on the zeitgeist, Le Pen gave an ecological twist to her crusade against free trade, which used to be based primarily on economic patriotism.

“I think the free trade-based economic model – which consists of producing 10,000km away to consume 10,000km away – is killing the planet,” Le Pen said, noting that trade is “responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions ” may be. That’s why, she explained, “built it [her] entire project revolving around locality… to consume as close as possible.”

In recent months, both candidates have promised to protect French farmers and consumers from imports of agri-food products.

With France currently holding the rotating EU presidency, Macron’s government has been pushing to halt imports of products that aren’t made to the same rigorous standards as the EU and has suspended negotiations on new trade deals, raising concerns among them more liberal EU countries. Le Pen’s program goes even further, as she wants to exclude all agricultural and food products from trade agreements.

Pensions in numbers

Le Pen and Macron traded barbs over pension reform, with Macron defending his unpopular decision to push back the retirement age and Le Pen attempting to portray himself as a 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 public finances. Macron wants to raise the statutory retirement age to 64 or 65 if re-elected. Le Pen wants to keep it between 60 and 62 years old.

“My project is very different from Mr. Macron’s project, which wants everyone under 65 to work,” she said. “This is an absolutely intolerable injustice.”

With a more generous pension system, the far-right leader is trying to win over blue-collar voters, many of whom start their careers young and work in difficult jobs. Retirement age is a cornerstone of Le Pen’s campaign platform, which focuses on welfare issues and the cost of living rather than their usual themes of immigration and security. The National Rally also hopes to attract voters on the far left, for whom pensions are an important issue.

Pensions are a thorny issue for Macron, who is trying to win over left-wing voters ahead of the second round. On Wednesday, he decided to attack his opponent for the credibility of her generous proposals.

“You never explain how you would finance [pensions]… They are not honest with people,” he said. “So either you have hidden taxes or you are threatening the balance [our pensions system].”

Climate skeptics versus climate hypocrites

Macron and Le Pen clashed over their climate policies, with Macron accusing his opponent of being a “climate septic” and Le Pen responding that Macron was a “climate hypocrite”.

While Le Pen said she wasn’t opposed to a green transition, she said “it needs to be much slower” and blamed “the international free trade-based economic model” for “the bulk” of greenhouse gas emissions.

Le Pen wrote in her manifest that if elected, she would “assess” and set France’s target for reducing carbon emissions annually and “depending on the development of other countries and the will of the French and their quality of life”. That is likely to make it harder for France to stay on track and meet its targets under the Paris Climate Agreement and Europe’s Green Deal – something Le Pen wants to “come out of”.

Macron has presented more green ideas and adjusted his project after the first round of the presidential election to attract leftist and hesitant voters.

On Wednesday, however, both candidates agreed on one thing: the development of new nuclear power plants to reduce the country’s dependence on energy imports.

At the beginning of his term, Macron promised to reduce the share of nuclear energy in the country’s electricity mix from 70 to 50 percent. Le Pen accused him of making a U-turn on this issue.

However, the two rivals for the presidency were at odds over the role of nuclear power 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, stressed that “there is no nuclear-only phase-out strategy from fossil fuels” and that new investments in renewable energy are needed in parallel. France has not met its targets under the EU Renewable Energy Directive for the time being and is therefore under pressure from the EU to increase its renewable energy capacity.

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