Pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen face off in a final televised debate on Wednesday that will showcase their starkly different visions of France's future ahead of this weekend's presidential election run-off.
The stakes are high for the televised duel between the Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, and anti-EU nationalist Le Pen, the 48-year-old scion of the National Front party.
Their contrasting views on Europe, immigration, the economy and French identity will be explored for the first time face-to-face, after a week of bruising clashes.
Opinion polls show Macron holding a hefty but narrowing lead of 59 percent to 41 percent, but previous debates during the rollercoaster campaign have quickly shifted public opinion.
‘Our goal is to avoid being dragged into mud-slinging,’ an aide to Macron told AFP on condition of anonymity ahead of the two hours and 20 minute debate.
- New step into mainstream -
The event marks a new step into the mainstream for Le Pen, whose party was once considered by France's political establishment to be an extremist fringe of racists to be boycotted.
When her father Jean-Marie made it into the final round of the presidential election in 2002, his conservative opponent Jacques Chirac refused to debate him out of fear of ‘normalising hate and intolerance’.
Fifteen years later, Le Pen scored 21.3 percent in the first round of the French election on April 23 after softening the FN's image -- but without fully removing doubt about the party's core beliefs.
She has consistently sought to paint her rival as the continuation of unpopular outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande and a champion of unbridled globalisation, the financial sector and immigration.
‘If he finds himself in difficulty, he can always ask Francois Hollande to come and hold his hand. I won't complain,’ Le Pen tweeted on Tuesday.
- 'Danger zone' -
The debate will be Le Pen's biggest chance in front of a a live television audience of millions to impress voters or induce an error by her opponent that could tilt Sunday's election in her favour.
Some in France are also worried about pollsters' prediction that up to 28 percent of voters could abstain.
‘We are in a zone of absolute danger. Do not play Russian roulette with our democracy,’ said socialist education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem on Wednesday.
Macron, who was economy minister under Hollande, is expected to be wary of making mistakes but has signalled his intention to take on Le Pen and challenge what he calls her ‘dangerous’ ideas for tackling the country's problems.
‘I want to go head-to-head, to get to the bottom of the issues, to show that these are false solutions,’ the independent centrist told BFM television Tuesday.
Recent uncertainty about Le Pen's stance on withdrawing France from the euro common currency could also give him an opportunity to target what is seen as a risky and unpopular policy by many voters.
‘Macron would do well to put maximum emphasis on the EU issue in the debate, especially the currency,’ veteran political analyst Philippe Braud told AFP. ‘It's the issue that causes the most concern, especially for businesses. It's not for love of Europe.’
- 'Smokescreen' -
Le Pen said Sunday that a new franc would be introduced for daily use while the euro would be retained for ‘large companies who trade internationally’.
‘The franc to buy your baguette and the euro for multinationals... it's not so much backtracking but a smokescreen in the last days of the campaign,’ wrote journalist Jacques-Olivier Martin in French daily Le Figaro on Wednesday.
In the face of the attacks on Macron's background as a highly educated civil servant and banker, he is expected to emphasise his personal story as a self-made man born to two doctors in provincial Amiens.
‘I wasn't born in a chateau,’ he said this week, alluding to the Le Pen family mansion on the outskirts of Paris where Marine and her sisters were brought up.
Sparks flew when they faced each other in the presidential debates before the first round of voting, when Le Pen memorably accused Macron of waffling for seven minutes and saying nothing.
Macron said she was transforming France's millions of Muslims into ‘enemies of the republic’.
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