French election: Emmanuel Macron debates on key policies with Marine Le Pen on live TV

President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen met in a live TV debate in the only face-to-face encounter of the French presidential election

An illustration picture taken on April 20, 2022 in Lavau sur Loire shows campaign posters of French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) candidate Marine Le Pen (L) and La Republique en Marche (LREM) candidate for re-election Emmanuel Macron (R) ahead of the second round of the French presidential election.  - Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen braced for a televised debate on April 20, 2022 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.  (Photo by Loic VENANCE  /  AFP)
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Emmanuel Macron has said Sunday’s French presidential election is not about him but the very future of France. The stakes in his sole debate with challenger Marine Le Pen could not be higher.

Going into the event, the 44-year-old incumbent laid out what he was putting on the line in his re-election bid.

“It is a referendum for or against the European Union,” he said. “April 24th is a referendum for or against the environment. April 24th is a referendum for or against our youth.”

For the far-right standard bearer Le Pen, who lags Mr Macron in polls, the televised encounter is a chance to show she has the stature to be president and to persuade voters they should not fear seeing the political extremist in power.

“Fear is the only argument that the current president has to try and stay in power at all cost,” Ms Le Pen said in response to those who say a far-right presidency would be disastrous.

As the contenders stoke tension, the evidence is that voters are disengaged even at this late stage of the campaign, said Brice Teinturier, managing director of the polling firm Ipsos.

“This is a campaign of profound dissatisfaction for many French people; of concern as well, there is a bit of concern,” he said. “Of course, the two electorates represented in the second round believe in [victory] but for half of the French people it’s really weariness, worry, sometimes frustration or even anger. So we are in a moment which is not the moment of a great second round of a presidential election, with two [political] projects which each should normally mobilise people and create hope.”

The pollster pointed to a structural problem for the French presidency in the two-round run-off. “The difficulty is that there are three ideologies present in this country – at the minimum three main ideologies – and one tries to fit them in two only,” he said. “This is a real confrontation, a political confrontation in the true sense of the word.

“These are not the same values, not the same projects, not the same relationship to the other, not the same relationship to the world, to Europe. So yes, there is a ‘vision shock’ which will come face to face this evening, but this ‘vision shock’ doesn’t carry hope in the eyes of the French people.”

Mr Macron, a centrist, suffered a shock when he emerged from the first round just five percentage points ahead of Le Pen, with another chunk of the electorate behind Jean-Luc Melenchon, a radical Leftist.

“There is a ‘vision shock’ which will come face to face this evening’ but this 'vision shock’ doesn’t carry hope in the eyes of the French people,” said Mr Teinturier.

Mr Macron is leading in opinion polls with a margin varying between 3 and 13 percentage points but Le Pen, 53, has significantly narrowed the gap compared with the last presidential election five years ago, when she lost with 34 per cent of the vote to Macron’s 66 per cent.

In 2017, a similar debate struck a decisive blow to her campaign.

Le Pen had looked hesitant, seeking answers from notes piled up in front of her, and appeared to lose her composure at one point. She also made basic mistakes on several economic topics, which Mr Macron immediately pounced on.

That proved disastrous for her image. Even in her own camp, she was criticised for being poorly prepared.

Ms Le Pen recently called the 2017 presidential debate the “biggest failure” of her political career.

This time, she has pledged to be more focused, working “at home” with her closest advisers.

Both candidates need to broaden support before Sunday’s vote. Many French people, especially those on the left, say they still don’t know whether they will even go to the polls.

Le Pen is expected to appeal to those who have anti-Macron feelings and present her nationalist, anti-immigration stance as an alternative. She also aims to demonstrate she has the stature of a potential president, and to promote what she says are realistic proposals.

Past funding from Moscow sources and an equivocal stance on the Ukraine war are negatives for Ms Le Pen. Mr Macron, meanwhile, will advocate his pro-Europe views as the way to make France stronger in the world. He will seek to convince leftist voters that his favourable stance on business should not deter them from choosing him.

The repeat of the last clash is a handicap for campaigners seeking to turn out the vote. “I’m 25 and us, the youth, we all think the same, within my group of friends, it’s Macron-Le Pen again,” said voter Nabil Dani.

“Macron is going to make it through again because Marine [Le Pen] can’t win quite yet because of her ideology – I think I’m probably not going to vote in the second round. It’s always the same thing.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, in Moscow in 2017.  AP

One of Mr Macron’s activists reported that the atmosphere was more favourable than two weeks ago.

“Today, we have a more peaceful relationship with voters than before the first round, when we were hassled by people who were far more aggressive,” said Anne-Laure Bourout, the campaigner. “Now, we see people who are more inclined to vote for Macron as a republican gesture.”

Updated: April 21, 2022, 4:46 AM