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Macron and Le Pen to square off in French pre-election TV showdown

Opinion polls showed Emmanuel Macron, 39, maintaining a strong lead of 20 percentage points over the National Front's Marine Le Pen.

FILE: ench presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National party Marine Le Pen gestures as she delivers a speech during a meeting at the Parc des Expositions in Villepinte, on 1 May, 2017. Picture: AFP.

PARIS - Centrist Emmanuel Macron said French voters should expect verbal "hand-to-hand" combat when he and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen face off in a televised debate on Wednesday evening, their last encounter before Sunday's run-off vote to pick a new president.

As they prepared for the debate, opinion polls showed Macron, 39, maintaining a strong lead of 20 percentage points over the National Front's Le Pen in what is widely seen as France's most important election in decades.

Voters are choosing between Macron, a strongly Europe-minded ex-banker who wants to cut state regulations in the economy while protecting workers, and Le Pen, a eurosceptic who wants to ditch the euro and impose sharp curbs on immigration.

Macron finished only three points ahead of Le Pen in the first round on 23 April, but he is widely expected now to pick up the bulk of votes from the Socialists and the centre-right whose candidates were eliminated.

Though Le Pen has a mountain to climb, the campaign has been packed with surprises, exchanges between the two have become sharper and the 48-year-old National Front veteran has shown she is capable of catching him out with public relations manoeuvring.

Upwards of 20 million viewers out of an electorate of close to 47 million are expected to tune in to the debate.
Macron said he would not pull his punches against a rival whose policies - primarily the anti-euro strategy and anti-immigrant stance on jobs and welfare - he says are dangerous for France.

"I am not going to employ invective... I'll use hand-to-hand fighting to demonstrate that her ideas represent false solutions," he told BFM TV.

Le Pen, who portrays Macron as a candidate of high finance masquerading as a liberal, told Reuters: "His programme seems to be very vague, but in reality it is a simple continuation of (Socialist President) Francois Hollande's government."

In that interview she reaffirmed she wanted to take France out of the euro and get a national currency back into French pockets within two years.

ABSTAINERS TARGETED

Wednesday's event marks the first time a National Front candidate has appeared in a run-off debate - an indication of the degree of acceptance Le Pen has secured for the once-pariah party by softening its image in an attempt to dissociate it from past xenophobic associations.

Though her father and National Front founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it through to the final round in 2002 the centre-right incumbent Jacques Chirac pointedly refused to meet him in a TV debate. Chirac won by a landslide.
Outgoing President Hollande, hours before the two rivals sat down before the cameras, renewed a call to stop Le Pen and vote for Macron.

In comments to reporters, he warned against assuming Macron's victory was in the bag. "It is not over yet and democracy has yet to speak," he said.

"I expect the French people to be aware of what is now at stake ... It is important that they reject a concept of France which is not ours," he said.

A Cevipof poll published on the website of Le Monde on Wednesday - one of the last big surveys before Sunday's vote - saw Macron getting 59% of votes versus 41% for Le Pen.

It said 85% of those certain to vote were now sure who they would pick, leaving at the remainder to be potentially swayed by what they see and hear in the TV showdown.

An Ifop-Fiducial poll for Paris Match, CNews and Sud Radio gave Macron a 60-40 lead.

His camp meanwhile said that, once in power, he might put back a deadline for cutting back reliance on nuclear power in the French energy mix - an announcement that sent EDF shares up 4.9% in heavy trade.

Commentators said Wednesday's debate could still have an influence, particularly on potential abstainers, many of whom voted for the hard left candidate who came fourth in the first round.

"What he (Macron) has to do is to convince the people who didn't vote for him (in the first round) and who do not agree with his programme that they will be respected," one outgoing government minister said.

Macron, a one-time economy minister in a Hollande Socialist government, heads only a fledgling movement called En Marche! (Onwards!) which has no representation in parliament.

Assuming he wins, one of his immediate tasks will be to build a parliamentary majority in follow-up elections in June to push through his programme.

A poll for Les Echos newspaper by OpinionWay-SLPV Analytics suggested Macron was rising to that challenge, showing his party set to emerge as the largest with between 249 and 286 seats in the 577-seat lower house, while the National Front was tipped to win 15 to 25.

If Le Pen wins on Sunday but fails to secure a parliamentary majority, she would dissolve the National Assembly and call a fresh parliamentary ballot under new proportional representation rules - assuming that new voting system was endorsed in a referendum.