France's Macron maintains poll lead after TV clash

By Lucien Libert and Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron has maintained his lead over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen following a prickly television head-to-head debate, a poll showed on Thursday.

With just three days to go before Sunday's election run-off, the two were due back on the campaign trail – Macron in a Paris suburb with a strong left-wing vote, and Le Pen in the north of the country where she has a loyal following.

Macron was seen as winning re-election with an unchanged 56% of the vote, according to a survey by OpinionWay/Kea Partners conducted between April 20-21, thus capturing some respondents after Wednesday evening's nearly three-hour TV debate.

But uncertainty about the final result remained high as the poll also showed that just 72% expected to cast their vote – a figure which would mark the lowest turnout since 1969.

Viewers of the only debate between the two final candidates deemed Macron prone to bouts of arrogance but also found him more convincing and fit to be president, a separate Elabe poll for BFM TV showed.

Le Pen, who focused on expressing empathy with people she said had "suffered" since Macron beat her in 2017, was judged slightly more in tune with voters' concerns but her far-right views were still considered much more worrying, the poll showed.

"Did she give the impression she is ready to govern?" Le Parisien said in an editorial on Thursday. "Judging by the debate, she did not dispel that doubt."

Other analysts said the debate should be taken with a pinch of salt as only 15.5 million people tuned in to watch it, the smallest audience ever recorded for such an event.

STARK CHOICES

The centrist, former merchant banker Macron is a staunch supporter of European Union and the kind of internationalism which has in recent years suffered setbacks from events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.

Le Pen says he embodies an elitism that has failed ordinary people. Her policies include a ban on Muslim headscarves in public, giving French nationals priority on jobs and benefits, and limiting Europe's rules on cross-border travel.

"What I like above all in her programme are the cost of living measures," said 23-year-old part-time house-help Johanna De Tarnow, one of a few dozen people come to see Le Pen at a motorway service station en route to the northern city of Arras.

"Yesterday in the debate, I found her calm, her head screwed on right. For me, Macron was arrogant," she said.

Macron will be campaigning on Thursday in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis – a key target for both candidates which voted heavily for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round.

It is unclear if the last two days of campaigning will change any votes. Macron's lead in polls is currently narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote.

"Recent history is littered with shock election results, so it would be naïve to think that Le Pen cannot deliver a surprise win," said Dean Turner, Chief Eurozone and UK Economist at UBS Global Wealth Management's Chief Investment Office.

The premium investors demand to hold French bonds over their German equivalent was largely stable on Thursday following the debate, suggesting they are sanguine about Sunday's vote.

Whoever wins on Sunday will only have done so after a bitter campaign which could bode ill for their capacity to win a parliamentary majority in June and implement reforms.

If Macron wins he could face a difficult second term, with voters of all stripes likely to take to the streets again over his plan to continue his pro-business reforms.

If Le Pen wins, radical changes to France's domestic and international policies would be expected, and street protests could start immediately.

(Reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Dominique Vidalon, Lucien Libert, Elizabeth Pineau; additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Marc Angrand; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Mark John; Editing by Catherine Evans and Angus MacSwan)

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