PARIS • French centrist Emmanuel Macron emerged the winner in a bad-tempered television debate with his far-right presidential rival Marine Le Pen, a poll found yesterday, underlining his status as the favourite for this weekend's presidential run-off.
The candidates clashed repeatedly over terrorism, the economy and Europe in the debate on Wednesday that was watched by 16.5 million people.
A poll by French broadcaster BFMTV found that 63 per cent of viewers thought Mr Macron was the "most convincing" of the two, broadly mirroring the forecast result for the election on Sunday. The duel was billed as a confrontation between Mr Macron's call for openness and Ms Le Pen's France-first nationalism.
Ms Le Pen, 48, branded the investment banker "the candidate of the elite" and the "darling of the system", and constantly sought to remind viewers of his role as former economy minister in unpopular President Francois Hollande's Socialist government.
Mr Macron, 39, responded by describing the scion of the National Front as "the heir of a system which has prospered from the fury of the French people for decades".
You have no plan but you are indulgent with Islamist fundamentalism.
MS MARINE LE PEN
I will lead a fight against Islamist terrorism at every level.
MR EMMANUEL MACRON
ON LEAVING THE EURO
What you propose is currency war.
The euro is the currency of bankers, not that of the people.
MS LE PEN
"The high priestess of fear is sitting before me," said the leader of political movement En Marche.
The sharpest exchange was over national security, a sensitive issue in a country where more than 230 people have been killed by militants since 2015. Ms Le Pen accused Mr Macron of being complacent. Mr Macron retorted that terrorism would be his priority if he is elected.
On Europe, Ms Le Pen accused him of being "submissive" towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying: "France will be led by a woman, either me or Mrs Merkel."
But Mr Macron was in combative form throughout, repeatedly portraying Ms Le Pen's stance as simplistic, defeatist or dangerous.
He targeted her proposal to withdraw France from the euro, calling it a fatal plan that would unleash a currency war, and accused her of failing to offer solutions to problems such as chronic unemployment.
Ms Le Pen called the euro, shared by 19 countries in the European Union, "the currency of bankers".
Like much of the French press, Le Monde said the 140-minute debate had been "brutal" and "violent from start to finish". Mr Frederic Dabi, an analyst with pollsters Ifop, said: "Le Pen's strategy was to push Macron into making a mistake, but she didn't really succeed."
Investors took heart from Mr Macron's debate win, scooping up French bonds and stocks.
Meanwhile, the French prosecutor's office yesterday opened an investigation on suspicion that fake news had been circulated with the aim of influencing voting.
Mr Macron earlier lodged a legal complaint with the office over allegations, which were referred to by Ms Le Pen during the debate, that he held an offshore account.
In a video message released yesterday, former US president Barack Obama endorsed Mr Macron, praising him for appealing "to people's hopes and not their fears".
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS