Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are squaring up for a presidential debate that promises to be belligerent and bad-tempered.
The candidates will face off across a table for more than two hours on Wednesday evening with two journalists acting as referees.
Le Pen of the far-right Front National will speak first and, with the latest opinion polls showing her still trailing with 40% behind Macron at 60%, she has little to lose by going on the offensive from the start.
Le Pen is expected to launch a twin-pronged attack on her centrist rival, accusing him of inexperience, never having held an elected post and being the stooge of the deeply unpopular Socialist president, François Hollande, in whose government he served as finance minister.
Analysts say Le Pen’s strategy will be to portray Macron as a member of the “Paris elite” she professes to detest and accuses of being out of touch with ordinary French people.
Macron, head of the En Marche! movement, says he is prepared to engage in verbal “hand-to-hand combat” with Le Pen and intends to point out the economic holes in her programme, and pin her down on diluted promises to dump the euro, bring back the franc and hold a referendum on leaving the European Union.
The debate between the first and second rounds of the French presidential elections has been a tradition since 1974 and has been described by the French media as a decisive moment. In reality, it is unlikely to substantially narrow the gap between Macron and Le Pen in the final vote on Sunday.
Both candidates will be trying to convince the estimated 18% of the electorate who polls say are undecided or do not intend to vote, as well as voters who backed the conservative François Fillon and the hard left Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round.
Jerôme Fourquet of pollsters Ifop told journalists on Wednesday that its research suggested 40-44% of Fillon voters would support Macron, 30% Le Pen and 25% to abstain or spoil their ballot paper. Of Mélenchon voters, 50% were ready to vote for Macron, 13% for Le Pen and 30-37% to abstain or spoil their ballot.
On Tuesday, a consultation of Mélenchon’s hardline “Insoumis”– those who have signed up to his movement – suggested 65% would abstain or cast a blank vote rather than support Macron.
Every aspect of the live debate on a primetime slot on France 2, the state broadcaster, and TF1, a private channel, has been approved by Le Pen and Macron or has been subject to a independent draw. Each will speak for exactly the same amount of time indicated by a clock on the screen. Le Pen will sit to the left, Macron to the right, precisely 2.5 metres apart and will be scrutinised by 14 cameras. The temperature in the studio will be set at 19C. About 60 questions have been prepared on themes including unemployment, Europe and the economy, but the candidates are thought unlikely to stick to a script.
Since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing faced François Mitterrand in a TV debate in 1981, camera teams have been ordered to film only the candidate who is speaking. For Wednesday’s debate, both candidates have agreed to allow cameras to cut away to show their rival’s reactions or the audience.
The debate clashes with the semi-final of the Champions League match between Monoco and Juventus.