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France’s Macron, Le Pen aim to consolidate poll lead in French TV debate – UPDATE

The top candidates in France’s volatile presidential election go head-to-head in a televised debate on Monday as polls show centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right leader Marine Le Pen pulling away from the pack five weeks before the first round.

Macron, Le Pen and the three other leading candidates will take part in a nearly three-hour debate on the main private channel starting at 9 P.M. (2000 GMT) on Monday evening expected to be watched by millions.

UPDATE: Elabe poll shows centrist Emmanuel Macron, for the first time since January, leading in the first round of the French presidential election. 

Macron seen leading with 25.5 percent of the vote against 25 percent for far-right leader Marine Le Pen and 17.5 percent for conservative Francois Fillon. Emmanuel Macron will go on to beat Le Pen with 63 percent to 37 percent in the second round, according to Elabe.

The televised debate, the first held before the first round of a French presidential election, may be crucial in helping viewers make up their minds.

Opinion polls show almost 40 percent of voters are not completely sure who to back in the election, being held over two rounds on April 23 and May 7 against a backdrop of high unemployment and sluggish growth.

Markets, surprised by Britain’s Brexit vote last June, are nervous about the possibility of a victory by National Front leader Le Pen, who pledges to take France out of the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership.

Polls show Macron and Le Pen establishing a clear lead in terms of voting intentions in the first round, while conservative candidate Francois Fillon, the one-time front-runner who has been damaged by a financial scandal, has slipped back.

For the first time since the campaign began, an Elabe poll on Monday found Macron nudging ahead of Le Pen in the first round, registering 25.5 percent to Le Pen’s 25, while Fillon was seen at 17.5 percent down 1.5 percent from two weeks ago.

Only the top two candidates go through to the runoff, where Elabe tipped Macron to easily beat Le Pen by 63 percent to 37 percent, while cautioning that many voters did not want to say how they would vote in the second round.

The latest daily Opinionway poll showed Le Pen scoring 27 percent in the first round, in front of Macron on 23 and Fillon on 18. It found Macron comfortably winning a run-off.

An attack at Paris Orly airport on Saturday, when a man known to police as a radicalised Muslim was shot dead after trying to grab a soldier’s rifle, has put security back in the spotlight after a series of Islamic attacks shook France.

That could play into the hands of right-wing candidates Le Pen and Fillon, who advocate tougher security measures.

The premium that investors demand to hold French instead of German debt rose to its highest in almost two weeks on Monday, reflecting unease among investors before the debate.

“We think the importance of this debate should not be underestimated. Only 60 percent of voters polled by Ifop say they have made up their mind,” said Mizuho rates strategist Antoine Bouvet.

Pollster Ifop’s data show more than 80 percent of Le Pen‘s backers saying they would definitely vote for her in the first round. By contrast, less than 49 percent of Macron’s supporters were certain they would vote for him.

The other two candidates taking part in Monday evening’s debate are the ruling Socialist Party’s candidate Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon, who have split the left-wing vote.

Macron, 39, a former economy minister and investment banker who has never run for elected office, made a name for himself by criticizing sacred cows of the French “social model” such as the 35-hour working week, iron-clad job protection and civil servants’ jobs for life. Other candidates are likely to attack his relative inexperience.

Alexa Stewart