Emmanuel Macron promises 'hand-to-hand combat' with Marine Le Pen in key French presidential TV debate

Henry Samuel
Emmanuel Macron, centrist French presidential candidate of the En Marche! (Onwards!) movement (L) and Marine Le Pen, far-Right presidential candidate (R) - AFP

Emmanuel Macron pledged to take on Marine Le Pen in "hand to hand combat" as the rivals in the French election face off tonight in their only one to one TV election debate.

Nothing has been left to chance in this crucial, final showdown before Sunday's runoff vote with the pair expected to square off for more than two hours.

French journalists Christophe Jakubyszyn and Nathalie Saint-Cricq pose on the TV set installed in a studio, ahead of a face-to-face TV debate between the candidates in the 2017 French presidential election Credit: Reuters

The pro-European Mr Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, and Ms Le Pen, 48, far-Right scion of the National Front party, have haggled right down to whether cutaways should be permitted and the names of the journalists quizzing them; the FN blackballed one presenter for being "too pro-Macron".

The pair are expected to clash over diametrically opposed views on Europe, immigration, the economy and French identity after a bruising final week of campaigning.

Polls show Macron holding a comfortable but lead in the polls of 59 percent versus 41 percent, but previous debates have led to tectonic shifts in public opinion and both have lightened their schedule to prepare for the clash.

"I want to get down to hand to hand combat, to get to the bottom of issues to show that her ideas are false solutions," said Mr Macron. "I will not go for insults or shortcuts…I listened to Ms Le Pen yesterday; that's all she does."

Emmanuel Macron, centrist French presidential candidate of the En Marche! (Onwards!) movement (L) and Marine Le Pen, far-Right presidential candidate (R) Credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

His team were forced to deny false rumours that he had threatened to walk out of the debate if Ms Le Pen resorted to low blows, saying: "Our goal is to avoid being dragged into mud-slinging."

Ms Le Pen wasted no time responding, saying: "If Mr Macron feels ill at ease, he can always ask François Hollande to hold his hand. That's fine by me." She has constantly sought to depict Mr Macron as a clone of the outgoing Socialist president rather than an alternative to his deeply unpopular presidency.

Even if goaded, Mr Macron must not appear to be manhandling a woman, one MP close to Mr Macron told Le Figaro. "A formula that appears to put down the adversary could appear misogynous," he warned.

French presidential election polling - round 2

"He must appear to listen, to be calm. If he's too good, too straight-laced, he could come across as curt, arrogant."

Ms Le Pen is expected to seek to tone down her usual vitriol with aides saying she needs to reassure those outside her camp that she is fit and ready to become French head of state and is not, as Mr Macron claims, a "danger" to democracy.

Whatever the outcome, the debate is historic as it the first time a far-Right candidate has participated in a second-round TV debate.

When her father Jean-Marie made it into the final round of the presidential election in 2002, his Gaullist opponent Jacques Chirac refused to debate him out of fear of "normalising hate and intolerance".

This time, Mr Macron said it would be absurd not to face his rival given that the pair have already taken part in two first-round debates with other candidates.

Ms Le Pen is likely to depict Mr Macron as the emissary of "savage globalisation", finance and immigration, as well as a soft touch on security and terror.

Mr Macron will no doubt attack Ms Le Pen's apparent flip-flopping over when or how she intends to take France out of the euro common currency, an unpopular proposal that some of her staunchest supporters fear could plunge France into economic chaos.

Both candidates will seek to rally around 30 per cent of the French electorate intending to abstain. A fifth of those who say they will cast a vote are undecided, according to one poll.

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