May 4, 2017 / 10:22 AM / 3 months ago

Macron stretches lead in last throes of French presidential campaign

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, is pictured through a window of his hotel during a campaign visit in Rodez, France, May 5, 2017.Regis Duvignau

PARIS (Reuters) - Centrist French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron extended his lead in the polls over his far-right rival Marine Le Pen on Friday, the final day of campaigning in a tumultuous election race that has turned the country's politics upside down.

Sunday's election is seen as the most important in France for decades, with two diametrically opposed views of Europe and France's place in the world at stake.

The National Front's Le Pen would close borders and quit the euro currency, while independent Macron, who has never held elected office, wants closer European cooperation and an open economy.

The candidates of France's two mainstream parties, which have alternated in power for decades, were both eliminated in the first round of voting on April 23.

An Ifop-Fiducial survey on Friday afternoon, hours before official campaigning closed at midnight, showed Macron on course to win 63 percent of votes in the second round and Le Pen 37 percent, the best score for Macron recorded by a major polling organization since mid-April.

Four other polls earlier in the day put the centrist on 62 percent and Le Pen on 38 percent, and a fifth showed Macron on 61.5 percent, as his second-round campaign gained ground following a stuttering start last week.

Pollsters said Macron had been boosted by his performance in a rancorous final televised debate between the two contenders on Wednesday, which the centrist was judged by French viewers to have won, according to two surveys.

Macron's strong showing in the debate, and another poll this week showing his En Marche! (Onwards!) movement likely to emerge as the biggest party in June legislative elections, have lifted the mood among investors worried about the upheaval a Le Pen victory could cause.

The gap between French and German 10-year government borrowing costs hit a new six-month low on Friday.

European shares eased after a week of gains that were partly driven by easing political worries in France.

"Despite that almost nobody expects a surprise, meaning Macron is the overwhelming favorite to win and become the new French president, traders seem to favor (taking) a bit of money off the table," said City of London Markets trader Markus Huber.

LE PEN BOOED

Le Pen was booed by several dozen protesters, including some brandishing Macron posters, as she visited the cathedral in Reims, northern France, where French kings were crowned in the Middle Ages. Macron toured the small town of Rodez in southern France.

Paris's police chief called emergency talks on security before the election after Greenpeace activists scaled the Eiffel Tower on Friday and unfurled a political banner.

Separately, police arrested a man suspected of having radical Islamist beliefs near an air base at Evreux, western France, during the night after spotting a suspicious vehicle, police and judicial sources said. Counter-terrorism prosecutors were investigating.

Security is a key election issue after attacks by militant Islamists killed more than 230 people in the past two years.

Macron was already looking ahead to being in power, telling RTL radio he had decided who would be his prime minister if he wins. He did not reveal a name, saying he would only announce the make-up of his government after he took office.

The anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen was not giving up.

"My goal is to win this presidential election," she said on RTL radio. "I think that we can win."

Le Pen was criticized by some pundits for her aggressive approach to Wednesday's presidential debate, seeing this as a setback to her attempts to rid the party of the fringe, extremist image it acquired under the nearly 40-year leadership of her father, Jean-Marie.

Defending her forceful stance, Le Pen told RTL: "My words are only the echo of the social violence that is going to explode in this country.

"People talk about my aggressiveness, but the terrible aggressiveness is that of Mr. Macron's plan ... which is a plan for social deconstruction and deregulation," she said.

ABSTENTION

A poll on Friday by Odoxa said a quarter of the French electorate was likely to abstain in Sunday's vote, many of them left-wing voters disappointed after their candidates missed reaching the runoff.

The projected abstention rate would be the second-highest for a presidential election runoff since 1965, underscoring the disillusionment of many voters at the choice they now face.

The turnout for the first round of the election was close to 78 percent.

A poll on Friday showed French voters to be among the most polarized in the European Union, with one in five describing themselves as "extreme" and only about a third as "centrist".

The survey from the Bertelsmann Foundation also showed an unusually high level of dissatisfaction in France with the direction of the country, underscoring the challenge that a new president will face.

Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Paris, Danilo Masoni in Milan and Abhinav Ramnarayan in London; Editing by Andrew Roche

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