Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have ramped up their campaigning with a hectic schedule of last-minute visits to attract floating voters, as France’s hotly contested presidential race enters its final hours.
While the vote is on Sunday, under French election rules all campaigning and opinion polling must end by midnight on Friday, and on Thursday the two candidates rushed to squeeze in time on the road.
Le Pen headed to Arras, in her northern stronghold, for a rally while Macron entered more hostile ground in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, where the radical-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon scored more than 60% of the first-round vote almost two weeks ago.
On Wednesday night the two candidates took part in an almost three-hour debate from which Macron emerged narrowly victorious, but which was also seen as unlikely to have changed many voters’ intentions, with the president accused of being arrogant and Le Pen of lacking credibility as a potential leader.
At the rally, Le Pen returned to the previous evening’s clash, criticising her rival. “I had in front of me an Emmanuel Macron who was very sure of himself, very contemptuous, very arrogant, including in his posture,” she said, “This did not surprise any French person, I think.”
The far-right candidate said the re-election of Macron would bring “social devastation”. “He will no longer be limited by anything … it would be even worse than the first mandate,” she said. “I will explain to them [the French] that another choice is possible. They must vote by listening to their reason and their heart.”
Macron was greeted by Saint-Denis’s Socialist mayor, Mathieu Hanotin, who unlike others on the left has called for voters to back Macron on Sunday.
The president dismissed Le Pen’s accusations. “When you have no more arguments to counter [the issues] you have to look for something else,” he said.
Macron said the debate had been “respectful” but that “madame says lots of bizarre things, between you and me”.
He added: “I think for people things are now clear. There’s a project to reinforce Europe … and a project that means the end of Europe.”
Le Pen’s programme was “imprecise”, he said, and he questioned how she was going to finance it.
“Our compatriots will make their decision on Sunday. Right up to the last minute nothing is decided,” he said.
Macron promised more investment in poor districts such as Saint-Denis, including increased funding for schools and to help underprivileged young people find work.
Hanotin said that if Le Pen won on Sunday it would be a “catastrophe” for poor and socially mixed areas such as Saint-Denis. “We must concentrate on how we mobilise to choose the republic next Sunday. That’s the reason that despite our differences I have supported Mr Macron.”
Wednesday’s marathon face-off between the two candidates was considered a key moment before Sunday’s vote. It was a rematch of 2017’s TV debate, during which the far-right leader became aggressive. This time Le Pen remained calm, though she still floundered occasionally. Le Monde likened Macron to a boa constrictor, slowly squeezing his rival to death.
The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said it was overall a satisfactory debate. “If the presidential campaign itself has been disappointing, here we saw the choice between two kinds of France, two different visions,” he told Europe 1 radio.
Jordan Bardella, the head of Le Pen’s National Rally, accused Macron of being the “No 1 public insult thrower”, adding: “When he insults Marine Le Pen as do his supporters, he is really insulting the French.”
Clément Beaune, the Europe minister, accused Le Pen of seeking to organise a Frexit by stealth. “On this subject it was clear that Marine Le Pen did not have a project and that she had just cut her Frexit into smaller pieces,” he said.
Gabriel Attal, a government spokesperson, said Le Pen had “changed her style but not the substance”. He accused her of wanting to “divide the French”, echoing Macron’s accusation that her proposed ban on the Islamic headscarf in public places would cause “civil war” in city suburbs.
About 15.6 million people watched the debate, fewer than the 16.6 million in 2017. The figure did not include those watching online.
The pollsters Elabe questioned viewers after the debate and declared that 59% found Macron more convincing, compared with 39% for Le Pen. Among supporters of Mélenchon, whose 7.7 million voters the two remaining candidates are chasing, the poll found 61% judged Macron convincing against 36% for Le Pen. Only 29% of those asked felt the far-right leader displayed “the qualities necessary to be president”.
Macron was deemed to be more dynamic, slightly more sincere and to have a better programme than Le Pen. Half judged Macron to be more arrogant than his rival, while Le Pen was considered “worrying” by about half.
Le Monde concluded that the debate was once again a failure for Le Pen. “Did she give the impression she is ready to govern?” asked Le Parisien in an editorial. “That is the only question that matters. Judging by the debate, she did not dispel the doubts.” Le Figaro said the debate would not have changed voters’ intentions.
A poll from Opinonway carried out after the debate suggested Macron could win Sunday’s vote by 56% to 44%, a wider gap than had been projected before the face-off.