By Ingrid Melander and Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) – The top candidates in France’s presidential election went head-to-head in a televised debate on Monday as polls showed centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen pulling away from the pack five weeks before the first round.
The debate, the first between the five main candidates, may be crucial in helping viewers make up their minds in a French election that has seen major twists and turns.
Opinion polls show almost 40 percent of voters are not sure who to back in the election, which will be held over two rounds on April 23 and May 7 against a backdrop of high unemployment and sluggish growth.
“The traditional parties, those who have for decades failed to solve yesterday’s problems, won’t be able to do it tomorrow either,” said Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister and investment banker who has never run for elected office.
Focusing from the start on her hostility toward the European Union, National Front leader Marine Le Pen struck a different tone, saying: “I want to be the president of France, not oversee a vague region of the European Union. I don’t want to be the vice chancellor of Angela Merkel.”
The TV debate was the top trending topic on Twitter in France on Monday before it even started. Television debates were key to Francois Fillon’s victory in the center-right primaries in November and to Benoit Hamon in the Socialist primaries in January.
Markets, surprised by Britain’s Brexit vote last June, are nervous about the possibility of a victory by Le Pen, who pledges to take France out of the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership.
Polls show Macron and Le Pen establishing a clear lead in terms of voting intentions in the first round, while Fillon, the one-time front-runner who has been damaged by a financial scandal, has slipped back.
Only the top two candidates go through to the runoff, where polls see Macron easily beating Le Pen.
But many are still undecided and opinion polls show the abstention rate could be higher than ever in France, adding to the uncertainty.
A high abstention rate could benefit Le Pen as polls consistently show that her supporters are the most certain of their vote.
Macron made a name for himself by criticizing sacred cows of the French “social model” such as the 35-hour working week, iron-clad job protection and civil servants’ jobs for life.
Fillon, dogged since January by a “fake job” scandal involving his wife, told the debate in his opening statement: “I want to be the president of national recovery, who will free the French up from bureaucracy.”
The premium that investors demand to hold French instead of German debt rose to its highest in almost two weeks on Monday, reflecting unease among investors before the debate.
(Additional reporting and writing by Adrian Croft; Editing by Noah Barkin)