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Le Pen, Macron prepare for crunch French presidency duel
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen prepared Wednesday for their one-off televised debate four days ahead of France's presidential elections, seeking to sway millions of voters who are still undecided.
France in Sunday's second round run-off faces a stark choice between the centrist president Macron and the anti-immigration Le Pen who will seek to become the country's first far right head of state in an outcome that would send shockwaves around Europe.
Macron is favourite to win the run-off, with most polls showing an advantage of over 10 percent, and become the first French president to win a second term since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
But analysts and allies of the president have warned the result is far from a foregone conclusion, with polls indicating over 10 percent of French who intend to cast their ballots have yet to decide who to vote for.
The incumbent and his rrival will trade blows starting at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT), in a rematch of their 2017 face-off that was widely seen as disastrous for Le Pen and contributing to Macron's easy eventual victory.
This time, the scenario is different -- Macron is no longer an upstart but the incumbent president with a five year record to defend while Le Pen has sought to soften her image and present her far right party as a mainstream force.
Both candidates have their eyes on voters who backed third-placed hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round. He has refused to urge his supporters to vote for Macron in order to keep Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace.
Looking ahead to parliamentary elections in June, often deemed the "third round" in France's electoral system, Melenchon on Tuesday called for a left-wing alliance that would deny either Macron or Le Pen a majority and potentially set him up as prime minister.
"I will be prime minister, not because Macron or Le Pen want it, but because the French will have elected me," he told BFM television.
- 'Probably decisive' -
The latest poll by Ipsos/Sopra Steria published Wednesday predicted a solid margin of victory for Macron on 56 percent to 44 for Le Pen.
But Macron's allies have warned him against complacency, not least faced with Le Pen's persistent attacks against the former investment banker as an aloof "president of the rich," out of touch with workaday concerns at a time of rising inflation and insecurity.
An Odoxa poll released Wednesday found that Macron's approval rating as a "good president" had slumped to just 40 percent in mid-April, down six points from March.
That could render the result on Sunday extremely close, even though the survey found that a majority of respondents still find Le Pen's populist, anti-immigration programme racist (56 percent) and divisive for the country (67 percent).
"This debate will probably be decisive for giving an advantage to one of these two rivals," said Odoxa's president Gael Sliman.
Brice Teinturier, director general of Ipsos France, said that while in the past presidential debates had become more of a tradition than decisive this one "could move more votes than we have ever observed before" in modern France.
- Zelensky weighs in -
Macron will likely seek to portray Le Pen as a fringe politician who cannot be trusted on foreign policy -- especially after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, given her past support for President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky entered the French debate Wednesday by urging Le Pen to admit "she made a mistake" in her admiration for Vladimir Putin and her refusal to condemn his 2014 annexation of Crimea.
If she did, "our relationship could change," Zelensky told BFM in a video interview, but "obviously I have ties with Emmanuel Macron and I would not like to lose them."
Appealing to French people to vote for Macron, jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was blunter.
In Twitter posts, he accused Le Pen of "corruption" and "selling political influence to Putin" over a 2014 loan of nine million euros ($10 million) from a Russian bank he called "Putin's notorious money-laundering outfit".
Macron is also likely to target Le Pen's plans for limiting the economic impact of the Ukraine war for low-income households, and her promise to give "national priority" to French citizens for jobs or welfare benefits.
Macron's "weak point is perhaps also his strong point. He never doubts in himself," Jordan Bardella, the acting leader of Le Pen's party, told France 2 TV.
For her part, the far-right leader will zero in on Macron's proposal to push back the retirement age from 62 currently -- though in recent days he has wavered on whether it should be 65 or 64.
Le Pen' "true strong point, is that she speaks to people about their daily problems," said Bardella.