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Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, speaks to members of the media at a news conference following a special meeting of the European Council to discuss the Ukrainian crisis at the EU Council headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 24, 2022.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, speaks to members of the media at a news conference following a special meeting of the European Council to discuss the Ukrainian crisis at the EU Council headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 24, 2022. (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg)

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen traded fierce criticism of each other's proposals on Wednesday, facing off in their only campaign debate before the decisive second round of the vote in four days.

The state of the French economy and the fallout of the war in Ukraine took a center stage, with Macron implying that his opponent is beholden to Russian interests, and calling her "dependent" on Russia and on President Vladimir Putin.

"You talk to your banker when you talk about Russia," he said, referring to how Le Pen's campaign in 2017 was partly funded through a loan from a Russian bank brokered by a Putin ally, according to French investigative outlet Mediapart. Le Pen has also expressed admiration for Putin in the past.

"I am an absolutely and totally free woman," Le Pen responded.

Le Pen, 53, has slipped slightly in the polls over the past days and is about eight percentage points behind Macron. But the race remains far more uncertain than five years ago, when she lost to Macron by more than 30 percentage points. Wednesday's debate is the last major opportunity for the far-right leader to portray herself as more moderate and presidential than five years ago.

Le Pen had what was widely seen as a bruising experience in her debate against Macron in 2017, when she appeared insufficiently prepared and lost her temper.

But she appeared more at ease on Wednesday, even when the highly-scripted and precisely-timed debate began with a false start: Le Pen started to speak while the opening music was still playing. She shrugged off the fumble with a laugh, and opened with a pledge to be the president of "justice," of "national fraternity" and "of the restored harmony of the nation."

In her opening remarks, Le Pen emphasized what has been the central argument of her campaign: that she is closer than Macron to the concerns of the French people.

"I know our people well," she said, "and for the past five years I've had to witness them suffer and worry."

In his introductory remarks, Macron appeared eager to defend his track record against Le Pen's criticism. "We've all together been through a difficult time — unprecedented crises, a pandemic on a scale we've not seen in a century, and today the return of war to European soil," Macron said. "Thanks to the trust put in me, I have gone through this period as the head of state, trying to make the right decisions. And I want to continue doing so."

Macron then highlighted his record on the economy and spoke of the need to make France "more innovative and stronger," as well as more active on climate change — a topic that resonates with the left-wing voters, whose choices to support one of them or abstain could tip the election.

For Macron, the format could prove more challenging this time. His position as the incumbent leaves him more exposed to criticism than five years ago. He has avoided direct debates with his challengers at other points in the campaign.

The candidates' teams haggled over every last detail — from the temperature in the room to the lighting and the size of the table — with the broadcasters in charge of the debate, under the supervision of France's communications regulator.

Le Pen and Macron are discussing eight broad themes, starting with people's purchasing power and followed by international politics, France's social model, the environment, competitiveness, youth, security and immigration, and institutions.

The debate was expected to center heavily on the French economy, which has become a dominant theme in the election. Even though France's economy has emerged more robustly from the pandemic than those of some of its neighbors, Le Pen's campaign has gained momentum by echoing a sentiment that economic growth hasn't benefited most citizens. Pre-existing concerns over rising inflation, energy prices and the cost of living have been further amplified by the impact of the war in Ukraine.

Macron, 44, has proposed extending some of his current policies, including a cap on electricity and natural gas prices that was introduced last year. He has also promised additional tax cuts and more spending on green energy if he wins a second five-year term. Macron has framed his proposals as more realistic than Le Pen's. The far-right leader wants to scrap income taxes for anyone younger than 30, cut taxes on energy and many basic goods, and go on a government spending spree.

Proposed changes to France's retirement age were also likely to come under scrutiny during Wednesday's debate. Whereas Macron has proposed raising it from 62 to 64 or 65, Le Pen wants to keep the current age and lower it for some workers.

Le Pen's biggest weakness on Wednesday could be her radical anti-immigration proposals, set to be discussed toward the end of the debate, which have long limited her party's chances of winning over more moderate or leftist voters. Macron also has faced criticism for shifting to the right on immigration over the past years. But in recent rallies and interviews, Macron has called Le Pen's platform "racist" and said that her proposals — which include a referendum on immigration and the preferential treatment of French people — would ultimately force France to leave the European Union.

Foreign policy featured more prominently in Wednesday's TV duel than in past presidential debates. The war in Ukraine had initially loomed large over the early stage of the French campaign, before domestic issues surged back to the forefront of the public debate. But questions over Le Pen's past admiration of Putin, her ties to Russia, and her criticism of NATO and the E.U. all re-emerged in the debate.

Le Pen sought to position herself as a strong supporter of Ukraine from the get-go on Wednesday, declaring her "solidarity and absolute compassion for the Ukrainian people." But she said she remains opposed to a ban on Russian oil and gas in response to the war in Ukraine, arguing it would hurt French people more than Russia. Macron has expressed support for an EU-wide ban on importing Russian oil and coal.

A long Twitter thread posted Wednesday to the account belonging to jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny urged the French to vote for Macron and accused Le Pen of corruption.

Macron's strategy is likely to be "to demonstrate her limitations and to return to her past — her family history, but also her political past — the proximity to Putin and to illiberal democracies like Poland or Hungary," said Alexis Lévrier, a media historian at the University of Reims.

Le Pen's campaign this year has been partially financed through a loan from a Hungarian bank that has links to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Particularly among older French voters, Le Pen's party also remains associated with its founder — and Le Pen's father — Jean Marie Le Pen, who called Nazi gas chambers just a "detail" of World War II. His daughter changed the party name and transformed the organization from a toxic fringe movement, but the party's past still loomed large over the runoff vote five years ago.

For most of the campaign, Le Pen's history and her past remarks on Putin played a minor role — partially because she faced the threat of being outflanked by far-right contender Éric Zemmour, who appeared in many ways even more radical than she.

Without Zemmour's presence, Le Pen's foreign policy proposals — including her recent remarks that NATO should reconcile with Russia after the war in Ukraine — could come under closer scrutiny.

But a strong focus on the war in Ukraine on Wednesday night also could carry risks for Macron, whose jet-setting diplomacy efforts and continued talks with Putin have so far yielded few results.

"I think the risk for Emmanuel Macron will be arrogance," Lévrier said. "There is a part of the public that obviously hates Marine Le Pen but is also suspicious of Emmanuel Macron.

"For him, the worst mistake would be to once again give away the image of someone who despises his opponent and brushes her aside," he said.

Timsit reported from London.

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