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Le Pen determined to avoid repeat of five years ago in pivotal debate

Debate set to be most important event in run-up to the April 24th presidential election

A 2½-hour debate between Emmanuel Macron and his extreme right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen on Wednesday night will doubtless be the most important event in the run-up to the April 24th presidential election.

Le Pen has been preparing for this for five years, since she lost her previous debate with Macron, on May 3rd, 2017. Just a few minutes into that debate, she confused the French companies SFR and Alstom. "SFR is telephones. Alstom makes turbines and industrial equipment," Macron told her scathingly, in front of 16.5 million television viewers.

Macron defeated Le Pen by 66 per cent to 34 per cent in 2017. This time, "the most likely scenario is a victory for Emmanuel Macron, at around 54-56 per cent", the political scientist and head of the Ipsos polling institute, Brice Teinturier, said.

For Le Pen to win, Teinturier told France Inter radio, three things would have to happen. Voters who abstained in the first round would have to vote for Le Pen in greater numbers than for Macron. Those who chose the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon would have to vote in equal numbers for both candidates, and Le Pen would have to keep a higher proportion of her voters than Macron.

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Issues are sure to include the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the effect of Le Pen's alignment with the illiberal prime ministers of Hungary and Poland on the EU

Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, held an internal poll in which 37.65 per cent said they would cast blank ballots, 33.4 per cent said they would vote for Macron and 29 per cent said they should abstain. Mélenchon urged his followers not to vote for Le Pen.

The circumstances of Wednesday’s debate were painstakingly negotiated. Le Pen was particularly wary of the camera cutting away from Macron to her while he speaks. Five years ago, she was shown frantically rifling through her dossiers. This time, the audience will see only facial expressions in response to the other candidate’s message.

Issues are sure to include the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the effect of Le Pen's alignment with the illiberal prime ministers of Hungary and Poland on the EU. Legal experts have attacked as unconstitutional her plan to hold a referendum to drastically limit immigration and establish a "national priority" that would discriminate against foreigners. She is likely to attack Macron for his plan to raise the retirement age.

Each has his or her weaknesses. Le Pen often talks too fast and becomes angry and aggressive when crossed. She will attempt to be cordial and presidential. Macron tends to be long-winded, and to sound condescending and professorial. He will try to project warmth and empathy for struggling French people.

Le Pen says Macron is “deeply contemptuous of the French”. She told TF1 television that she finds him “violent, brutal, aggressive, and sometimes even insulting towards me”.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal accused Le Pen of "campaigning in her slippers" because she took a two-day break to prepare for the debate. Her aides found an énarque – a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration which Macron attended – to be her "sparring partner" as she rehearses.

Macron’s entourage point out that he campaigned hard in Le Pen and Mélenchon strongholds while Le Pen mostly stayed in her “comfort zone”. At her last public appearance before the debate, on Monday in a small town in Calvados where Le Pen won seven points more than Macron in the first round, she told supporters: “I have come to seek strength from the people. Yes, I am going to win.”

Both candidates responded to criticism by modifying their programmes

The French establishment, including former presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy and the family of the late Jacques Chirac, have endorsed Macron. Numerous athletes, intellectuals and entertainers have appealed to voters to "bar the path" to the extreme right. "Marine Le Pen has never governed anything," prime minister Jean Castex said on Tuesday. "Madame Le Pen's policies would be a tragedy for our country."

Both candidates responded to criticism by modifying their programmes. Le Pen abandoned plans to hold a referendum on the death penalty, and softened her opposition to the Muslim headscarf after a 70-year-old woman wearing a white headscarf told her it was a sign of a grandmother.

“It’s very difficult to follow Madame Le Pen’s programme because it changes every day,” Castex said.

Le Pen had intended to make France the first country in the world to ban the headscarf in all public places, but the measure proved more controversial than she expected. It was pointed out that Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of a French Muslim soldier who was murdered by an Islamist in 2012, wears a headscarf. "Her son was torn from her. We're not going to tear off her scarf," the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said. Le Pen's campaign changed position several times but now says banning the scarf remains "an objective" but is "no longer a priority".

In his effort to court Mélenchon voters, Macron made an 11th-hour conversion to ecology. His first environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, resigned saying Macron was not serious about fighting global warming, a criticism levelled by environmentalist groups throughout his five-year term.

But in Marseille on April 16th, Macron promised to make France the first country to wean itself off gas, petrol and coal. He adopted two terms from Mélenchon’s campaign: “ecological planification” and “shared future” and said Le Pen was a climate denier who would scupper plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.