| PARIS, April 4
PARIS, April 4 All France's presidential
candidates go head to head for the first time on Tuesday in a
televised debate that will pit favourites Emmanuel Macron and
Marine Le Pen against rivals, some of whom draw one percent or
less of support in polls.
The marathon three-hour exercise, involving all 11
candidates, will give each candidate only about 17 minutes of
speaking time and will be a first for a French presidential
With only 19 days to go before the first round of the
election, the debate will give challengers like conservative
Francois Fillon an opportunity to close the gap on centrist
Macron and far-right leader Le Pen.
It will also be, for outsiders like right-winger Nicolas
Dupont-Aignan, who has around 4-5 percentage points in opinion
polls, and for five candidates who poll between 0 and 1 percent,
a rare chance to step into the spotlight.
Debate, which will range over the key issues of unemployment
and the economy, and immigration and security, could be heated,
French media have suggested.
"We don't want this to turn into a dogfight," said Alain
Weil, the director general of SFR media, which owns the BFM TV
channel organising the debate together with CNews television.
Macron and Le Pen are tied on 25 percent in the April 23
first round of the election, although Macron would go on to beat
Le Pen in the second round, a Le Monde/Cevipof opinion poll and
a separate Ifop poll showed on Tuesday ahead of the debate.
The Cevipof poll, which surveyed 14,300 people between March
31 and April 2, said Macron would beat Le Pen in the May 7
runoff by 61 percent to 39 percent.
The race for the Elysee has been marked by major twists and
turns that have seen the eclipse of some big names and the
emergence of scandals that have troubled the campaigns of some
of the main players.
Fillon, a 63-year-old conservative prime minister, was the
frontrunner in the campaign until he was hit by allegations that
he paid his wife, a son and daughter hundreds of thousands of
euros of public money for minimal work.
He now trails third in the first round, according to polls,
a position which would eliminate him from the race.
The Cevipof poll foresaw Fillon getting 17.5 percent of
first round votes, unchanged from the last poll in mid-March,
while far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was seen getting 15
percent, up 3.5 points and ahead of Socialist candidate Benoit
Hamon on 10 percent.
Macron, who seeks to transcend the classic left-right divide
in French politics, was voted the most convincing performer in a
snap poll following a March 20 televised debate involving only
Voter certainty has risen sharply in France, with 64 percent
of those surveyed now sure of their decision - up 5 points on
The voter base of Le Pen, head of the anti-immigrant and
anti-European Union National Front, was the most certain, with
82 percent of her voters sure of their choice, up 4 percentage
French judicial police in February questioned Le Pen's
bodyguard and chief of staff in relation to a probe into alleged
misuse of EU funds to pay parliamentary assistants.
Le Pen denies wrongdoing. She might face questions on
Tuesday though on an investigation by a French prosecutor into
the activities of her party in a regional council in northern
France, news of which broke just hours before the debate.
A judicial source said the probe had been opened after a
newspaper report that one of her top party aides was suspected
of being paid for fake work.
Fillon's certainty score was up 7 points at 75 percent,
Macron's up 9 points to 61 percent, Melenchon's unchanged at 60
percent, and Hamon's up 5 points at 52 percent.
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Andrew Callus; Writing by
Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Balmforth)