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Millions of French voters watch Macron and Le Pen debate before Sunday's runoff

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen met last night in their only debate before Sunday's runoff vote for president of France. Millions of French voters watched, and so did NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

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UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: Bonsoir, Marine Le Pen. Bonsoir.

MARINE LE PEN: Bonsoir.

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: Bonsoir, Emmanuel Macron.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: Bonsoir.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Macron and Le Pen had 2 1/2 hours to debate the biggest issues facing France and to lay out their visions for the future. Two moderators kept them to topic. Two giant stopwatches kept them to time. Analysts say Le Pen had to make up for her disastrous performance against Macron in their debate five years ago.

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MACRON: (Speaking French).

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen tried to attack Macron and his record and show how she would do things differently, but his vast knowledge of every issue made that difficult. Several times, Macron pointed out that Le Pen's plans weren't coherent. When talking about energy, she said she would dismantle windmills and only use nuclear. Macron explained why France needed both. He asked her how she planned to finance projects like retirement for all at 62. She didn't really have an answer. Thierry Arnaud is managing editor of television station BFM Business.

THIERRY ARNAUD: Sometimes she would get confused, and she would mix up the details. And you know that when you face Emmanuel Macron, you cannot afford to do that because he's going to be on top of every issue. And his ability to - you know, to go deep into any kind of subject is always quite impressive.

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MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: When asked about the European Union, Macron credited the bloc with important advances like creating and distributing the COVID vaccine. Being part of the EU means being able to stand up to China and compete with the U.S., he said. While Le Pen no longer advocates leaving the EU, an idea that turned out to be unpopular with French voters after Brexit, she complained that the EU's unfair open-competition laws hurt French producers. Yves Threard, an editorialist with newspaper Le Figaro, told French TV Le Pen had the wrong debate strategy.

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YVES THREARD: (Through interpreter) She was not able to effectively attack Macron and his record, and she presented her ideas, but they were not developed enough. So when she talked about the EU, a major topic, he rightly pointed out that her policies are still a de facto Frexit.

BEARDSLEY: The candidates also clashed on secularism.

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LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen called the Muslim hijab a uniform imposed by Islamists. She said she wants to ban it in public. Macron pounced. He said that would make France, a country of the Enlightenment and human rights, the first ever to ban religious symbols in public. That's not in line with our values, he said, and it would be impossible to enforce. On the war in Ukraine, Le Pen did condemn Russia's invasion, but she seemed embarrassed when Macron gave details of a loan her party received several years ago from a Russian bank with ties to the Kremlin.

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MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "You can't take a strong stance on Russia because you depend on Russian power and Mr. Putin," said Macron, referring to the Russian president. "Vladimir Putin is your banker." A post-debate poll showed that 59% of the French were convinced by Mr. Macron compared with 39% by Ms. Le Pen. Voters go to the polls Sunday to choose between the two.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.