French leader Emmanuel Macron and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen are preparing for a crunch presidential election debate, with supporters of the president warning against complacency despite a solid poll lead.
Macron will go head-to-head with Le Pen late on Wednesday in their only direct clash before Sunday’s second-round vote, an encounter to be watched by millions of voters.
Some polls have projected a lead of about 10 points for Macron over Le Pen in the runoff, a repeat of the 2017 election. But undecided voters and abstentions could yet swing the figures.
Macron won the 2017 election with 66.1 percent of the vote, also against Le Pen, but the race is now much tighter with the president suffering from criticism of his management of the COVID crisis and economic policies.
Several polls have put Macron at the highest level since before the first round on April 10, widening the gap by an average of three points.
Ipsos on Tuesday put Macron winning 56.5 percent of the vote in the runoff against 44 to 47 percent for Le Pen.
The stakes in the election are high with Europe watching to see if Macron wins another five years in office to work as a champion of the European Union, which Le Pen has promised to reform under a far-right presidency.
Le Pen has cleared her diary to concentrate on preparing for Wednesday’s debate, hoping to avoid any repeat of the fiasco five years ago when her ill-prepared performance contributed to her defeat.
The debate represents a final chance to haul back ground in the polls and convince France she has moderated her anti-immigration party into a mainstream force.
Macron is likely to seek to portray her as a dangerous politician who cannot be trusted on foreign policy – especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine given her past comments of admiration towards President Vladimir Putin.
Both candidates are particularly eager to woo the electorate of hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished a strong third in the first round.
The one-off live televised debate – scheduled from 19:00 GMT – is a political tradition in France since 1974 when Socialist Francois Mitterrand took on centrist Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
‘Either could win’
Macron has insisted he does not see the election as being in the bag, reminding voters of the political upsets of 2016 when Britons voted to leave the EU and Americans put Donald Trump in the White House.
Key allies have made clear nothing should be taken for granted, telling voters tempted to stay home they must cast their ballots.
“The game isn’t over yet and we certainly can’t draw conclusions … that this election, this match, is already decided,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told France Inter radio.
“We have to convince the French that Emmanuel Macron’s programmes are the best for France and for them,” he said.
Castex added if Macron wins, his government would resign to give the governing party new impetus in advance of legislative elections in June.
“Right now either candidate could win,” said another ally, Francois Bayrou, leader of the pro-Macron Modem party.