Macron, Le Pen gear up for final sprint in French presidential campaign

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The two remaining contenders in the French presidential race return to the fray on Monday after a brief Easter pause in campaigning and ahead of their high-stakes televised debate on Wednesday.

President Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen both have relatively gentle schedules on Monday, pacing themselves until Wednesday's TV face-off, which could turn out to be the key to the campaign.

In 2017, when the pair clashed at this stage of the campaign, it was clear that Macron emerged as the more convincing candidate. He won the election comfortably a few days later.

This time however, Le Pen insists she is better prepared. "In my head, I'm ready to exercise power," she told TF1 television Sunday night.

Macron was equally confident in his comments to TF1. The incumbent does carry the weight of criticism built up over his five years at the helm, notably among the less-well-off.

"I think I have a winning plan that deserves to be known and I have the feeling that on the far-right side, there is a plan that deserves to be clarified," he said.

Close finish predicted

The latest opinion polls suggest Macron has the edge ahead of the second round on 24 April, giving him scores of between 53 and 55.5 percent to Le Pen's 44.5 to 47 percent.

Le Pen recognises that the TV debate will be decisive.

"I've read so much nonsense about my plans over the last few days, so many caricatures -- even fake news -- that it's extremely important I can get a moment with all the French people who are interested... so as to be able to reassure everybody," she said on Saturday.

Le Pen has been careful to stress her plans to tackle rising living costs rather than her usual topics of immigration and Islam.

On Sunday, her team was keen to play down her proposed ban on the Islamic headscarf in public places, which she has said will be punished with fines by the police. This was no longer her priority in the fight against extremism, they said.

Mission to convince

Le Pen's election team have also hit back at a report that the European Union's anti-corruption body had accused her and senior colleagues of having embezzled more than 600,000 euros of EU funding during their time as euro-deputies.

Her lawyer, Rodolphe Bosselut, expressed suspicion at the timing of the release of the story, first revealed by the investigative website Mediapart on Saturday.

On Monday, Le Pen will head to Normandy in the north of France on what she is calling her "mission to convince", before stepping back from campaigning to prepare for the debate.

Macron meanwhile has radio and television interviews lined up and a rally later in the week.

A string of leading politicians on the left and the right have thrown their weight behind Macron.

However, the results of a survey carried out by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical-left candidate who came third in the first-round poll, will give Macron food for thought.

Mélenchon garnered 7.7 million votes in the first round: nearly 22 percent of the total. Of 215,292 supporters surveyed, only one third said they intended to vote for Macron in the second round.

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