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2022 FRENCH PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Macron and Le Pen clash on debt, Russia and Islam in live debate

A ban on the Muslim headscarf, concerns over the cost of living and links to Putin proved the flashpoints in the live TV debate between Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in their live TV debate on Wednesday night.

Macron and Le Pen clash on debt, Russia and Islam in live debate
French President and La Republique en Marche (LREM) party candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron (L) and French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (R) (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

Probably the most animated moment was when the pair were asked about their plans for Muslim women who wear the hijab headscarf.

READ ALSO 6 take-outs from the Macron v Le Pen debate

Macron warned that Le Pen risked sparking a “civil war” if she was elected and implemented her plans to ban the Muslim headscarf in public.

The pair also clashed over the cost-of-living crisis and Le Pen’s links to Vladimir Putin in a televised debate that last for almost three hours.

Headscarf

Le Pen confirmed that she stood by her controversial idea of banning the headscarf, which she called “a uniform imposed by Islamists”, but she said she was not “fighting against Islam.”

Macron responded: “You are going to cause a civil war. I say this sincerely.”

“France, the home of the Enlightenment and universalism, will become the first country in the world to ban religious symbols in public spaces. That’s what you’re proposing, it doesn’t make sense,” he continued.

“You’re proposing how many policemen to go running after a headscarf or a kippah or a religious symbol?”

Le Pen initially sought to play down the importance of the ban when asked about it, saying it was “causing excitement in the media these last few days although it is just one part of a whole”.

“What I want to do is fight against Islamism because, unlike what you say, I haven’t forgotten that there is terrorism, I haven’t forgotten that there are Islamists,” she said, addressing Macron.

“I think we need to introduce a law against Islamist ideology. I’m not fighting against a religion, I’m not against Islam, which is a religion that has a place (in France),” she added.

“I’m fighting against Islamist ideology which is way of thinking that undermines the foundations of our republic, which undermines equality between men and women, undermines secularism, undermines democracy,” she said.  

Cost of living

Le Pen said she had seen people “suffering” over the first five years of Macron’s rule and that “another choice is possible”.

“If the French people honour me with their confidence on Sunday, I will be a president for daily life, the value of work and purchasing power,” she said.

Macron replied that “we must and should improve people’s daily lives through major projects for the school and health systems”.

He claimed his measures to help household incomes were more effective than Le Pen’s and also said that France should become a “great ecological power of the 21st century”.

Russia

“You are dependent on the Russian government and you are dependent on Mr Putin,” Macron said, referring to a loan agreed by Le Pen’s party with a Czech-Russian bank which he said was “close to the Russian government”.

Le Pen replied that she was “an absolutely and totally free woman” adding “I am a patriot”.

“It was because no French bank wanted to give me a loan,” she said.

The exchange was the first major clash between the two, with Macron also highlighting Le Pen’s decision to recognise Crimea as Russian after the Ukrainian territory was annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.

“Under international law we rarely recognise… territories that have been annexed by force,” he said.

Le Pen stressed that she was in favour of all the sanctions against Moscow announced since Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and she backed supplying arms to Ukraine

“The aggression that Ukraine has been victim of was unacceptable,” she said.

She also held up a printout of one of her old tweets defending an independent Ukraine.

Le Pen created waves last week when she proposed closer ties between Western military alliance NATO and Russia once the war in Ukraine was over.

She also reaffirmed her intention of repeating France’s 1966 move of leaving NATO’s integrated military command, while still adhering to its key article 5 on mutual protection.

‘Not honest’

“You never explain how you will finance your projects and you are not honest with people,” Macron told Le Pen.

She in turn sought to put heat on the president, mocking how the “Mozart of finance” had left a “bad” economic legacy that included an extra €600 billion in national debt.

On the environment, Le Pen hit back at Macron’s accusation that she was “climate-sceptic” by calling him a “climate-hypocrite”.

Turning to Europe, Le Pen insisted she wanted to stay in the European Union but reform the bloc into an “alliance of nations”.

“Europe is not all or nothing,” she said, as Macron retorted that she appeared to be proposing something other than EU membership.

“Your policy is to leave Europe,” he said, describing the election as a “referendum for or against the EU”.

Winners

The priority for Le Pen was to avoid a repeat of the 2017 run-off debate where Macron managed to make her look flustered and sometimes not on top of her brief.

When she cited increased debt under Macron, he replied: “Oh dear, oh dear. Stop. you’re getting everything confused.”

Despite the flashpoints, much of the debate was muted, even dull, with Le Pen keeping a lid on her temper – unlike the pair’s firey clash in 2017.

Early analysis suggests that the debate was unlikely to have changed many voters minds and polls are unlikely to see a big swing either way.

Macron is favourite to win the run-off, with most polls showing an advantage of over 10 percent, and become the first French president to win a second term since Jacques Chirac in 2002.

The latest poll by Ipsos/Sopra Steria published on Wednesday predicted a solid margin of victory for Macron on 56 percent to 44 for Le Pen.

But analysts and allies of the president have warned the result is far from a foregone conclusion, with polls indicating over 10 percent of French who intend to cast their ballots have yet to decide who to vote for.

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STRIKES

‘We can’t work until 65’: Why French workers are ready to battle pension reform

French workers took to the streets across the country on Thursday in an effort to fight for higher wages and to decry proposals by President Emmanuel Macron's government to raise the retirement age.

'We can't work until 65': Why French workers are ready to battle pension reform

The protest in Paris was one of around 200 around the country on Thursday but only drew around 40,000 marchers.

It could be seen and heard from far away, as drums were banged and chants were sung, marchers made their way towards the historic Place de la Bastille.

The chants of “SMIC à €2,000” (minimum wage at €2,000) and “Rétraite à 60 ans” (retirement at 60 years old) were repeated over and over.

Originally Thursday’s inter-union protest – representing workers from several sectors – intended to demand higher wages amid the cost of living crisis, but the mobilisation quickly shifted to focus equally on denouncing plans by President Emmanuel Macron’s government to push through pension reform. 

Protests occurred as the French government vowed on Thursday to push through the reform by the end of the winter. 

Macron made raising the retirement age from its current level of 62 one of the key planks of his re-election campaign, arguing that the current system was unsustainable and too expensive.

But opposition parties have vowed to fight the government all the way.

“It’s the start of a social battle,” leading left-wing MP Alexis Corbiere from the France Unbowed (LFI) party told AFP as he took part in a protest march of tens of thousands in Paris. “My hope is that this is the starting point.”

While there were some notable absences from the march in Paris, namely the largest union in France, CFDT, those present were keen on making their voices heard, particularly in regard to their plans to continue protesting should Macron push on with his plan to raise the retirement age.

“There is nothing wrong with the system as it is,” said Fréderic Aubisse, a sewage operator in Paris and former head of the waste treatment union with CGT. For Aubisse, the problem of salaries and retirement are connected – he sees current salaries as too low and unattractive.

“We just need more people paying into the system,” the former union head said.

For waste treatment workers, the subject of retirement is particularly sensitive.

“We [waste treatment workers] already have a low life expectancy,” he added, explaining that pushing retirement back even further is not sustainable for people in his line of work. In Aubisse’s view, many would die before getting to enjoy any benefits of retirement.

According to Libération newspaper, waste treatment workers in France do have an excess mortality of 97 percent. 

Aubisse said he has been fighting for at least thirty years to keep social protections from being eroded, and that he and members of his union would continue protesting.

“If it makes it through parliament, it will be too late. We must start taking action now.” 

Another demonstrator, Dominique, who has been employed as cash register worker for Carrefour supermarkets for 35 years, said for her it would be “like 2019 again.” 

Dominique was referring to the 2019-2020 pension reform strike – the longest industrial action in French modern history. The Carrefour worker said she would be prepared to go to such lengths once more.

“Many of us here today have painful, repetitive jobs. We cannot continue to the age of 65,” said Dominique.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, Macron views pushing back the pension age as one of the only ways the state can raise revenues without increasing taxes.

He has made it clear he would not hesitate to call fresh elections if opposition parties voted down the government over the reform.

Maintaining the focus on salaries

Some protesters in Paris on Thursday remained firm in the original motive of the protest to focus on demanding higher wages. The inter-union group, largely represented by the union CGT, called for for salaries to be indexed at a rate of at least 10 percent for civil servants.

The government previously increased the rate by 3.5 percent, but unions said that this “falls short of the urgent need to raise all salaries” and “preserve living conditions of all.”

Whilst the strike on Thursday caused some disruption on public transport and rail services, around one in 10 teachers joined the action forcing many schools to close their doors.

Teachers – a well-represented group at Thursday’s protest in Paris – were adamant wages must increase further.

“[The government’s 3.5% increase] is not enough. It does not suffice,” said Clotilde, an elementary school teacher in the Paris region.

Wearing a sign on her back with the words “20 years in teaching, but still a salary of a student,” Clotilde said it is “extremely difficult to live in the Paris region as a teacher.”

Clotilde’s sign. Picture Credit: Genevieve Mansfield

For her, the government’s proposals did not adequately cover the costs of inflation, a sentiment which was echoed by fellow teacher Aina Tokarski.

Tokarski, a middle school teacher in Villejuif, also wore her sign on her person. 

Tokarski holding up her sign

Tokarski explained that the start of the 2022 school year shook her – a young teacher, she saw several colleagues leave the profession, and she too considered making some changes, such as moving to a more affordable region in France.

“When I get to the grocery store, I look at the prices and just think to myself: this is not possible,” she said.

For her, the government has not raised salaries enough to combat the cost of living crisis.

In addition to rising costs, Tokarski worries about the conditions in the public school system generally. “The start of the school year really concerned me. We have teachers with upwards of 30 students per class. That is unattainable. It has been getting worse since the pandemic,” she said. 

While it was not a focus of the protest, other public employees highlighted staff shortages as deeply concerning, and innately related to salaries.

Véronique, a speech and language pathologist who works for the public hospital system, said she was there to “defend our salaries.”

Wearing a white doctor’s coat, Véronique explained that low salaries have pushed several doctors in her sector to leave their jobs, adding that this shortage has led to wait-lists growing far too long:

“It is not right for a four-year-old child who cannot speak to have to wait at least a year or two years to see a specialist. We have to triage our patients now,” she said.

When asked if she had plans to protest again, Véronique gave an emphatic “Bien sûr” (of course).

Xavier Signac, a 48-year-old member of the UNSA union from southwest France, as he walked along with a flag in Paris told AFP: “It’s up to us to show our determination, to show that street protests still have some power.”

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