An illustration picture taken on April 20, 2022 in Lavau sur Loire shows campaign posters and ballots of French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) candidate Marine Le Pen and La Republique en Marche (LREM) candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron ahead of the second round of the French presidential election. Image Credit: AFP

PARIS: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen braced for a televised debate on Wednesday that is likely to prove the climax of this year’s turbulent French presidential campaign, with millions of votes still up for grabs just four days before polls open.

The centrist incumbent and his far-right rival will trade blows starting at 9pm (1900 GMT), a rematch of their 2017 face-off that was widely seen as disastrous for Le Pen.

But this time Macron will not be the outsider making his first run at public office - he will have a five-year record to defend against a candidate who has softened her extremist edges to present a more mainstream image.

Recent polls give Macron the advantage, at 53 to 56 per cent against 44 to 47 per cent for Le Pen, who is making her third run at the presidency, though analysts say turnout could still sharply sway the final result.

Participation in the first round of voting was just 74 per cent, meaning one in four eligible voters stayed home, a pool that both candidates are eager to motivate.

In addition, the fiery hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon scored nearly 22 percent in the first round, and he has refused to urge his supporters to vote for Macron in order to keep Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace.

The decisions by those left-leaning voters - many of whom have expressed a visceral rejection of Macron’s policies - could prove crucial.

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.

Approval slips

Wednesday’s debate, the only one Macron agreed to in this year’s race, will be watched by millions and has often proved pivotal in determining the choices of last-minute voters.

Macron’s allies have warned him of any complacency, not least amid Le Pen’s persistent attacks against the former investment banker as an aloof “president of the rich”, out of touch with everyday concerns at a time of rising inflation and insecurity concerns.

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 programme racist (56 percent) and divisive for the country (67 percent).

“For the first time, in order to kick out a ‘president of the rich’, a large number of French seem ready to elect a president they consider less competent, without sufficient stature to be president,” Odoxa’s president Gael Sliman wrote.

“This debate will probably be decisive for giving an advantage to one of these two rivals,” he said.

Clashing visions

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.

He is also likely to take aim at her 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.

Le Pen has also promised a crackdown on immigration in the wake of the string of jihadist terror attacks that have struck France since 2015, killing scores of people.

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.

She also wants to restore French “sovereignty” by reducing the European Union’s reach in national affairs, while Macron is expected to continue championing further integration of the bloc.