France braces for Le Pen-Macron showdown

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France on Saturday prepared to choose between centrist President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen. The winner of Sunday's runoff will rule the country for the next five years after a bitterly contested and divisive election campaign.

Macron is the favourite to win re-election in the decisive second-round ballot on Sunday, and there are indications he bolstered his advantage with a combative performance in Wednesday's televised debate against a defensive Le Pen.

But the president and his allies have insisted over the last week that nothing is in the bag, with a strong turnout crucial to avoid a shock in France comparable to the 2016 polls that led to Brexit in Britain and the rise to power of Donald Trump in the United States.

A Le Pen victory would also send shockwaves across Europe. Left-wing EU leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have pleaded with France to choose Macron over his rival.

Campaign blackout in force

Saturday is marked by a campaign blackout, with no campaigning allowed and no more polls published.

Macron and Le Pen threw themselves into a final flurry of campaigning Friday, firing off attacks in interviews before last-minute walkabouts and rallies.

Le Pen insisted that opinion polls giving Macron the lead would be proved wrong and took aim at her rival's plan to push the retirement age to 65 from 62.

Macron for his part said Le Pen was trying to mask an authoritarian "extreme right" platform that stigmatises Muslims with her plan to outlaw headscarves in public.

Analysts say abstention rates could reach 25 to 30 percent, in particular among left-wing voters unhappy with Macron's pro-business agenda, not least his tax cuts for businesses and the highest earners.

Spring school holidays will also be in full swing across much of the country this weekend, increasing the chances that many voters will not cast ballots.

No clear help from Mélenchon

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who scored a close third-place finish in the first-round vote on 10 April, has refused to allow Macron an easy ride by pointedly refusing to urge his millions of followers to back the president while insisting they must not cast a single vote for Le Pen.

Polls have shown Macron with a lead of some 10 percentage points.

The result is predicted to be closer than in 2017, when the same candidates faced off and Macron carried the day with 66 percent to 34 percent.

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