In a televised debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential election, the far-right presidential candidate claimed she was fighting radical Islam not Muslims: “I am not carrying out a war against their religion,” she said.
“I’m telling it in a very clear manner: I think the headscarf is a uniform imposed by Islamists,” Ms Le Pen said. “I think a great proportion of young women who are wearing it have no other choice in reality.”
“What you’re saying is very serious,” Mr Macron said. “You’re going to create civil war if you do it.”
France would be “the first country in the world to ban religious displays in public spaces,” he said.
Earlier, the French president tore into his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen for her ties to Russia, picking apart her suitability to lead the country and deal with Moscow as he trawls for the votes he needs to win another five-year term.
In their only head-to-head confrontation before the electorate has its say, he sought to portray his rival as fundamentally untrustworthy, accusing her of dishonesty and of using faulty figures in her election promises.
She, in turn, sought to appeal to voters struggling with surging prices amid the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Le Pen said bringing down the cost of living would be her priority if elected as France’s first woman president, portraying herself as the candidate for voters unable to make ends meet.
The debate drove home the yawning gulf in politics and character between the two candidates again vying for the presidency, five years after Macron comfortably beat Le Pen in 2017.
Polls suggest Macron, a pro-European centrist, has a growing and significant lead over Le Pen, an anti-immigration nationalist, ahead of Sunday’s vote. But the result is expected to be closer than five years ago and both candidates are angling for votes among electors who didn’t support them in the election’s first round on April 10.
“I am not like you,” Le Pen said as they clashed about France’s energy needs.
“You are not like me,” Macron said. “Thank you for the reminder.”
The French leader was particularly mordant in his criticism of a loan taken out by Le Pen’s party in 2014 from a Russian-Czech bank. He said that debt meant that, if elected president, 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,” 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.”
Le Pen bristled at Macron’s suggestion that she was beholden to Russia. She described herself as “totally free”. She said her party was repaying the loan and called him “dishonest” for raising the issue.
Just hours before last night’s debate, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stepped into the French presidential campaign, urging voters to back Macron and alleging Le Pen was too closely linked to Russia.
Macron emerged ahead from the April 10 first round. But Le Pen has gained ground by tapping anger over inflation.