Macron and Le Pen face off in high-stakes election debate

  • Discussion starts at 1900 GMT
  • Macron and Le Pen in a tough race to win the elections
  • France votes on Sunday

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen will face off on Wednesday evening in a debate that could prove crucial in Sunday’s presidential election.

For Le Pen, who has fallen behind Macron in voter polls, it is an opportunity to show she has the standing to be president and to convince voters that they should not be afraid to see the far right in power.

“Fear is the only argument that the incumbent president should try to stay in power at all costs,” she said in a campaign video, accusing Macron of hyping about what the far-right presidency might mean for France.

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For Macron, perhaps the biggest challenge he faces in maintaining his growing lead in the polls is not to appear arrogant – something many voters have criticized for – while scrutinizing the holes he sees in Le Pen’s political plans.

Such debates are usually widely followed and the memorable phrases of the past are still mentioned decades later.

“I’m eager to see what happens,” voter Joseph Lombard said in Paris. “It’s always a boxing match.”

But sources on both sides said they wanted a quiet discussion so much that a source close to Macron, familiar with the preparations for the discussion, said it might be “boring”.

“The president should show toughness… without sounding arrogant,” the source said. “It will be very serious, and she also has to show the toughness of the core.”

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A source close to Le Pen said she wanted a “quiet discussion, project versus project”.

different this time?

If the two-and-a-half-hour debate continues in this way, it will be very different from the 2017 meeting, when Le Pen’s presidential challenge unraveled as her notes got mixed up and she lost her ability to cope.

The prime-time controversy on that occasion cemented Macron’s status as the front-runner.

But Macron is no longer the source of foreign policy turmoil and now has a track record that Le Pen can attack. In the meantime, she engaged with ordinary voters and worked hard to soften her image.

Another source close to Macron said: “The French are now looking at her as a potential president, unlike what happened in 2017. It is now up to us to prove that she would be a bad president.”

Financial markets are more optimistic about the election than they were five years ago, and the odds presented by British political bookmakers on Wednesday suggest there is a 90% chance of Macron winning. Read more

However, Emmanuel Kao, head of European equity strategy at Barclays, cautioned against inaction among investors.

“A belated turnover cannot be ruled out given the large number of hesitant voters,” he wrote in a note.

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Competing platforms

The elections present voters with two opposing visions of France: Macron presents a liberal pro-European platform, while Le Pen’s nationalist manifesto is founded on deep suspicions of Europe.

After more than half of voters voted for far-right or far-left candidates in the first round, Macron’s lead in opinion polls has been narrower than it was five years ago. One poll on Tuesday predicted he would win with 56.5% of the vote.

Moreover, Le Pen could not do better than in the 2017 debate, which she herself described as a failure, while it may be difficult for Macron to repeat such a losing performance.

But Macron is not without origins in this debate.

With far-right critic Eric Zemore now out of the game, Le Pen lost a rival who made her appear less extreme, by comparison, and that beat her in the polls.

Unemployment is at a 13-year low, and the French economy has outperformed other large European countries – even if inflation is chomping at it.

And while she has so far largely managed to put the matter aside, Le Pen has her former admiration that Russian President Vladimir Putin is working against her.

Bringing the issue back to the fore, imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny urged French voters to support Macron over Le Pen’s ties to Moscow. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told BFM TV that he did not want to lose the relationship he built with Macron.

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(Reporting by Michelle Rose and Elizabeth Pinault) Additional reporting by Lucien Liebert and Julian Pontus. Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Love and Alex Richardson

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