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French presidential candidates face off in first TV debate

France's tumultuous presidential race steps up a gear on Monday as the five leading candidates face off in a TV debate, the first of its kind in the eurozone's second biggest economy, with just a month to go before the vote.

This combination of pictures created from file photographs on March 20, 2017 shows 2017 French presidential election candidates (L-R and arranged in alphabetical order) Francois Fillon of the Les Republicains (LR) Party, Benoit Hamon of the Socialist Party (PS), Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front (FN), Emmanuel Macron of the En-Marche movement and Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far left coalition “La France insoumise”. France’s presidential election moves into high gear on March 20, 2017 when the top five contenders face off in a TV debate that could help sway legions of undecided voters, a month before they go to the polls. / AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET AND Eric FEFERBERG

France’s tumultuous presidential race steps up a gear on Monday as the five leading candidates face off in a TV debate, the first of its kind in the eurozone’s second biggest economy, with just a month to go before the vote.

In the most unpredictable election in years, far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron have been running neck-and-neck for weeks, with the latest opinion poll showing Macron just half a percentage point ahead for the first round of voting on April 23.

The debate will be the first time in history that French voters get an opportunity to compare the leading candidates before the first round as the frontrunners share the stage with the candidates currently in third and fourth place, Francois Fillon of the right and Benoit Hamon of the left, along with the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon.

All 11 contenders, spanning the spectrum from Trotskyist left to the far right, will take part in another debate on April 4. In previous elections, TV debates have been held only between the two finalists. This year’s runoff is scheduled for May 7.

– Disgruntled voters –
The presidential hopefuls face an especially disgruntled electorate. Millions are still undecided after five years of lacklustre Socialist rule under Francois Hollande, with a sluggish economy and an ever-present threat of new jihadist violence.

Socialist candidate Hamon, 49, attracted a crowd of 20,000 to a Paris rally on Sunday, but with his staunchly leftist platform he is seen by many as representing the rump of a party in disarray.

Meanwhile 63-year-old Fillon has sent his conservative Republicans party into a tailspin with a raft of scandals that have landed him in the dock for misuse of public funds.

On Monday he will seek to claw back votes lost to 39-year-old Macron since the scandal broke in January by trying to shift the focus to his policy programme, including the radical spending cuts he says are France’s only hope for real change.

With polls showing Macron would rout the anti-immigration Le Pen, 48, in the decisive run-off if the election were held today, he is expected to face the most heat in the three-hour debate starting at 2000 GMT.

Le Pen’s aides say she will tear into his “globalist” programme, while Hamon on Sunday gave a taste of his plan of attack against Macron, casting the former Rothschild banker as the candidate of the elite.

– Turnout a key factor –
The election could hinge on turnout, after several political veterans have already been sent packing by voters fed up with politics as usual.

In The Netherlands, with the far-right Freedom Party knocking on the doors of power, more than 80 percent of people turned out to vote last week.

But in France, with Le Pen hoping to emulate Donald Trump’s win in the United States, polls show that only around 65 percent of voters are planning to vote in the first round in what would be a record low.

Of those, more than two in five say they are not yet wedded to any candidate.

Supporters of Macron, who styles himself as a progressive transcending France’s entrenched left-right divide, are among the most volatile while Le Pen’s are the most loyal, polls show.

“The 2017 campaign is hard to get a handle on,” Pascal Perrineau, a political science professor at Sciences Po university, wrote in Le Monde at the weekend, blaming the steady drip of “scandals, real or imagined” for preventing real debate.

While most of the focus has been on Fillon’s legal woes and the disconnect with the “irreproachable” image that helped him win the conservative nomination, Le Pen also goes into the election with several investigations hanging over the FN.

Macron, a relative newcomer to politics, has largely avoided scandal but could be tainted by an investigation into possible favouritism over an event at a 2016 high-tech fair in Las Vegas at which he was the main speaker.

His predicted runoff with Le Pen will be the most surprising since 2002 when the FN leader’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen rocked the political establishment by getting into the second round where he lost to conservative Jacques Chirac.