Le Pen stands by Muslim headscarf ban in public in TV debate clash with Macron

21 April 2022, 08:49

Macron and Le Pen clashed in a TV debate watched by millions
Macron and Le Pen clashed in a TV debate watched by millions. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that his far-right rival Marine Le Pen risks sparking a 'civil war' if she is elected and enacts her plan to ban the veil in public.

During a televised presidential debate watched by millions of people in France, the two candidates went head-to-head, and Le Pen confirmed that she stood by her controversial idea of banning the headscarf.

She described the item as "a uniform imposed by Islamists", but she said she was not "against Islam".

"I think the headscarf is a uniform imposed by Islamists," Le Pen said.

Read more: Muslim girls 'got better grades' after veil banned in schools in France, study claims

Le Pen argued women in France should be liberated, while centrist Macron said it would lead to "civil war".

Mr Macron also attacked his far-right challenger over her ties to Russia and her suspicion of the European Union.

She dismissed links to Moscow and insisted the country needs to solve the problem of massive immigration.

In their only televised debate before voters have their say in Sunday's run-off, Mr Macron sought to portray Ms Le Pen as fundamentally untrustworthy, accusing her of dishonesty in her election promises.

Ms Le Pen, whom Mr Macron beat in the last presidential election five years ago, is doing better in polls this time although she still trails the incumbent president.

The French leader was particularly vocal in his criticism of a loan taken out by Ms Le Pen's party in 2014 from a Russian-Czech bank. He said that debt meant that, if elected president, Ms Le Pen's hands would be tied when dealing with the Kremlin.

"You are speaking to your banker when you speak of Russia, that's the problem," Mr Macron charged in the evening primetime debate.

"You made a choice which, obviously, acted as a constraint on your political position and does not make you independent on that issue. That is a fact," Mr Macron said.

Ms Le Pen bristled at Ms Macron's suggestion that she is beholden to Russia. She described herself as "totally free."

She said her party is repaying the loan and called him "dishonest" for raising the issue.

Mr Macron, a pro-European centrist, emerged ahead from the April 10 first round and is leading 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 2017, when she lost with 34% of the vote to Mr Macron's 66%.

Ms Le Pen made an inauspicious start in the debate. Having been picked to speak first, she started off before the debate's opening jingle had finished playing. Inaudible because of the music, she had to stop and start again. She apologised.

Once the jousting began, Mr Macron quickly put Ms Le Pen on the defensive. He zeroed in on her voting record as a lawmaker and questioned her grasp of economic figures.

In 2017, a similar debate struck a decisive blow to her campaign.

Both candidates need to broaden support before Sunday's vote. Many French, especially on the left, say they still do not know whether they will even go to the polls.