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All eyes on French presidential candidates as they go head-to-head in mega TV debate

Lionel Bonaventure, AFP | The 11 candidates will get 17 minutes each to try to convince the French to vote for them

All 11 candidates in France's presidential election, from frontrunners Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron to also-rans, take part in a giant TV debate on Tuesday seeking to swing undecided voters.


With just 19 days until the first round of voting in a rollercoaster contest, the debate could play a crucial role in swinging momentum, with support for 39-year-old Macron still seen as fragile.

Polls show far-right candidate Le Pen and centrist independent Macron locked together at around 26 percent heading into the first round on April 23.

Le Pen, 48, performed relatively poorly in the first debate, failing to score points against her rivals although she did not make any major slip-ups either.


One candidate who needs to shine is conservative Francois Fillon, who has begun clawing back ground after his campaign was almost derailed by criminal charges over claims he paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) for a fake parliamentary job.

Fillon has displayed signs he is attracting support again despite his legal woes. He has risen to around 17 percent -- and the 63-year-old former prime minister is an assured performer in debates as he pushes his wish to slash public spending.

Far-left surprise

The strong performance of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left firebrand, has been one of the surprises of the campaign and his 15 percent and rising in the polls puts him fully five points ahead of the Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.

"It's like the spring, you don't see it then, boom! There are flowers everywhere," Melenchon told a rally on Sunday.

Melenchon, 65, has established a reputation as an often aggressive anti-establishment figure who like Le Pen scorns globalisation and the political elite, while firmly rejecting her hardline rhetoric on immigration and Islam.

Melenchon's surge in the polls can be traced back to his incisive and at times witty performance in the first debate on March 20 that was watched by around 10 million people.

Unlike that first debate, Tuesday's will feature all of the candidates and not just the top five, provoking fears it could become unwieldy.

The highest-scoring candidate among the six others is Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a Gaullist polling at around four percent.

The others are Jacques Cheminade, who rails against the "domination" of global finance; the New Anti-Capitalist Party's Philippe Poutou; Nathalie Arthaud of the Workers Party; Francois Asselineau, who wants to quit the euro and NATO; and Jean Lassalle, a self-styled "farmer-politician" without political affiliation.

In such a crowded debate, each candidate will be allowed to speak for around 15 minutes and the questions will be restricted to just three themes -- how to create jobs, how to protect France, and the thorny question of how each candidate would implement their vision of France's social model.

The final result of an election that is being watched closely around the world is still seen as highly unpredictable.

Dissatisfaction and outright hostility towards mainstream politics is high in France and surveys show around a third of voters plan to abstain, while around a third of likely voters say they have still not made up their minds.

Polls have consistently shown that Le Pen will reach the run-off on May 7 but be beaten at that stage.

But Macron warned Monday that commentators were still underestimating Le Pen, saying those who said she stood no chance were "the same people who said (Donald) Trump couldn't win".


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