Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will go head to head in a live TV debate on Wednesday night that could prove crucial in making up the minds of undecided voters four days before the French presidential runoff.
The high-stakes, two-and-a-half-hour confrontation, the only direct clash between the two candidates, has been a tradition of French presidential campaigns since 1974, often confirming or dashing electoral ambitions.

With recent polls giving Macron a lead of up to 12 points before Sunday’s vote, Le Pen will be keen not to reproduce the poorly prepared, muddled, and aggressive performance that sealed her eventual defeat in 2017.

“The debate was a failure for which I paid a very heavy price,” Le Pen admitted last month, vowing not to make the same mistakes twice. One of her closest advisers, Philippe Olivier, said she had been “preparing for this moment for five years”.

The race is far tighter this year and for Macron, who won by a margin of 66% to 34% five years ago, the greatest danger may be of appearing arrogant – a trait for which he is often criticized – as he attacks what he has termed Le Pen’s “fantasy” policies.

“He can’t come across as too technical, too professorial,” said one Macron aide. “Her whole thing is about being on the side of the people; he can’t be dismissive. But he has explained the problems, the inconsistencies, the impossibilities of her program. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

The president also starts at a disadvantage since this time around he has a track record that his challenger will be able to attack. “He’s in a much trickier position – he has something to defend,” said Jean Garrigues, a historian, and political scientist.

But Macron faces a rival who has lost momentum as her France-first manifesto – which includes enshrining a “national preference” for jobs, housing, and welfare and declaring the primacy of French legislation over international law, bringing France into immediate conflict with the EU – comes under closer scrutiny.

Macron can also point to an unemployment rate at a 13-year low and an economy that has outperformed those of other major European countries, and he is likely to confront Le Pen over her past admiration for Vladimir Putin and her plan to ban wearing the hijab in public.

For her part, Le Pen will try to present herself as a credible leader and defender of the workers, and portray Macron as belonging to an out-of-touch elite, with possible attack lines including Macron’s controversial plan to raise the retirement age.

“Fear is the only argument the current president has to try to stay in power at all costs,” the National Rally leader said in a campaign clip this week, accusing Macron of doom-mongering over a far-right presidency.

The debate, due to start at 9 pm local time, will be broadcast live on the two main French public and private TV channels as well as the 24-hour news stations. It is likely to attract an audience of millions – the 2017 clash was watched by 16.4 million – and has been tightly choreographed, with every detail agreed by both camps.

The teams have each appointed “consultant producers” who will be in the studio and can intervene if they feel their candidate is being disadvantaged. A mutually acceptable backdrop has been designed, and 2.5 meters set as the distance between the opponents. The studio temperature will be set at 19C.

A draw has determined that Le Pen will speak first, and Macron will have the last word. The debate will address eight themes: cost of living; social policy including pensions and healthcare; environment; the economy; education; law and order; immigration; and institutional reform.