French election: Emmanuel Macron consolidates poll lead after TV clash

Voter turnout on Sunday is expected to be the lowest for a presidential run-off since 1969

French President Emmanuel Macron on April 21, three days before his run-off election against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. AFP
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French President Emmanuel Macron has maintained and possibly slightly extended his lead over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen after a prickly TV debate that he was judged to have won, polls showed on Thursday.

With only three days to go before Sunday's election run-off, the two were back on the campaign trail — Mr Macron in a Paris suburb with a strong left-wing vote, and Ms Le Pen in the north of the country where she has a loyal following.

"Why wait for Macron to step down when, by using your vote, you can fire him?" she told a rally in the town of Arras, in which she urged a "silent majority" opposed to Mr Macron not to let him win by abstaining.

The latest polls suggested the incumbent was gaining momentum.

Three surveys all including responses gathered on Thursday after the TV debate showed Mr Macron's score stable or slightly rising, to reach between 55.5 per cent and 57.5 per cent.

But they also put the turnout rate at between 72 and 74 per cent, which would be the lowest for a presidential run-off since 1969.

Viewers of Wednesday's televised encounter throught Mr Macron had been prone to bouts of high-handedness with Ms Le Pen, but also found him more convincing and fit to be president, showed another poll, by Elabe for BFM TV.

Ms Le Pen, who focused on empathy with people she said had "suffered" since Mr Macron beat her in 2017, was judged slightly more in tune with voters' concerns but her far-right views were still considered much more worrying, the poll showed.

"Did she give the impression she is ready to govern?" Le Parisien said in an editorial on Thursday. "Judging by the debate, she did not dispel that doubt."

Other analysts said the debate should be taken with a pinch of salt as only 15.5 million people tuned in to watch it, the smallest audience recorded for such an event.

The centrist, former merchant banker Mr Macron is a staunch supporter of the EU and the kind of internationalism that has in recent years suffered setbacks from events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Ms Le Pen says he embodies an elitism that has failed ordinary people.

Her policies include a ban on Muslim headscarves in public, giving French nationals priority on jobs and benefits, and limiting Europe's rules on cross-border travel.

Mr Macron on Thursday sought to win new supporters in a photo opportunity at a boxing club in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis.

It is a key target for both candidates because its electorate voted heavily for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round.

"Things are not changing quickly enough," Mr Macron acknowledged to a gathering of locals there.

He promised to put more resources into housing, security, education and job opportunities for underprivileged communities.

Two hijabi women confront far-right French presidential candidate Le Pen

Two hijabi women confront far-right French presidential candidate Le Pen

It is unclear whether the last two days of campaigning will change votes. Mr Macron's lead in polls is narrower than five years ago, when he beat Ms Le Pen with 66.1 per cent of the vote.

It has been a bitter campaign that could bode ill for either candidate's ability to win a parliamentary majority in June and implement reforms.

If Mr Macron wins, he could face a difficult second term, with voters of all stripes likely to take to the streets again over his plan to continue his pro-business reforms.

If Ms Le Pen wins, radical changes to France's domestic and international policies would be expected, and street protests could start immediately.

Updated: April 22, 2022, 6:01 AM