French election: In the final run-off, people vote for the candidate they dislike least

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There is a ripple of excitement, a push from the crowd and then a cacophony of cheers. Marine Le Pen, smiling and waving, has arrived in town. 

She is surrounded by a blend of well-wishers, reporters, security officers, curious shoppers, and flunkies.

Slowly, she walks down the road of this Normandy town, normally a quiet corner of the Calvados region - Le Pen at the heart of a huge rolling maul, signing autographs, posing for photos, and sharing a few thoughts.

"Are you confident?" I ask her above the noise, struggling to keep my balance. Back comes a smile, "Oh yes. Very," she replies.

"And are you going to win?". She pauses and replies with as much emphasis as a person can muster while smiling so determinedly. "Yes," she tells me. "Yes. I think I'm going to win."

The polls suggest otherwise, with Emmanuel Macron retaining a clear lead over her as the days tick by.

But, even though the two candidates are the same, nobody thinks we are in for a repeat of the 2017 election result.

Back then, Macron swept to victory with two-thirds of the vote, leaving Le Pen looking broken and hobbled.

The only person to suffer a worse thumping in the presidential election was Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, when he was utterly thrashed by Jacques Chirac in 2002.

France has changed over the past five years, though. For a start, Macron is no longer the fresh upstart, so anti-establishment that he set up a brand new party.

He is now part of the political mainstream. You can't spend five years as the French president and still claim to be an outsider.

For another, Le Pen has worked hard to soften her edges, expanding her rhetoric beyond immigration and much further into economic policies.

For instance, she wants to cut taxes, reduce duties and lower the retirement age. How all that will be paid for is left vague.

At the same time, she also talks of banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves and is still clearly dubious about the merits of the European Union. The image may have been softened, but, at heart, she remains a radical, far-right politician.

So the rapid price rise in daily essentials has come as something of a blessing for her.

It happened on Macron's watch, and it has had a huge effect on rural communities and lower-income families - the bedrock of her support.

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What do people think of Macron and Le Pen?

Among those who have come out to see her in Normandy, there isn't so much support as a blend of reverence and hysteria.

"Macron prefers Europe to France but we prefer France to Europe," one young man tells me.

His girlfriend proudly shows me her phone - there is a photo of her and Le Pen, smiling next to each other. Will she vote for her? "Of course," she replies, chuckling. How could I even ask?

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Jean Claude Vasset is brandishing a poster of Le Pen and shouting out her name. She has signed it, and he is thrilled because, in this politician more than any other, he thinks he finds empathy.

"Marine Le Pen's arguments have improved. I've been unemployed for five years, living on benefits and supporting a family of five and Macron has done nothing while the cost of living has gone up."

His wife, Edwige, says that Macron "helps the richest people but Marine Le Pen is the opposite of that - she is on the side of the workers not the rich".

It is a refrain that you hear again and again in this town, and across much of France - that Macron rules France for the benefit of the wealthy and for the aggrandisement of himself.

Even in Paris, where it can be assumed Macron will lead the polls with a healthy majority, he doesn't seem to conjure much affection.

But then there is a familiar adage about the presidential election - that in the final run-off, people vote for the candidate they dislike least. And in Paris, that's often Macron.

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"He's for rich people. He says he's half left and half right, but he has made nice presents for the wealthy," says one passing Parisian. "But I'm quite sure he will be the next president because that will be less horrible than Marine Le Pen."

"I think Macron will win because he's a brilliant young man, but I don't like him," said another, as he strolled through a street market near the Jardins de Luxembourg.

A woman, passing through the markets, chips in: "There are no words for how much I dislike Marine Le Pen. We have voted for the past 20 or 25 years to keep the far-right away. They say they're different now but they're not. They haven't changed."

What has changed for the two politicians in the last five years?

Tonight, the two contenders will meet for a live TV debate. Five years ago, it was under the studio lights that Le Pen's campaign came to a premature end, as her edgy, unconvincing performance pretty much guaranteed victory for Macron.

She has learned the lessons. This time around, Le Pen and her team have put much more effort into preparations, mirroring her attempts to soften both her image and her rhetoric.

Macron and Le Pen are both big, imposing figures on the French political scene. Macron created his own party to help pursue his ambitions; Le Pen inherited a party from her father but has since expelled him from it, and changed its name.

Read more: Can 'detoxified' Marine Le Pen convince enough voters she's fit to be leader?

He has tried to redefine centrist politics while casting himself as a great European leader; she has done her best to make French nationalism into a palatable, mainstream ambition.

Both of them have their die-hard supporters; both have huge swathes of the country who can't bear them. As is the case in much of modern politics, this is a nation asked to choose between divisive candidates.

The polls favour Macron, but we know that polls can end up being profoundly wrong and, as you stand among the swirl of raw noise that follows Le Pen through the streets of that town, it's clear that she is tapping into a heady seam of discontent.

Whoever wins this election will have their work cut out.

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