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France’s would-be presidents make last-minute appeals before vote

PARIS: Candidates in France’s presidential election made last-ditch appeals to sway undecided voters on Thursday as the third and fourth placed contenders kept up the pressure on the two hopefuls leading opinion polls.

Voters will cast ballots on Sunday in the first round of what has turned into the most unpredictable French election in memory, with four of the 11 candidates within reach of the two places for the run-off on May 7.

Pollsters see centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen taking the top two places on Sunday and so going head-to-head in the run-off. That would break the normal rotation of power in France between the centre-left and centre-right.

Polls on the race to succeed the deeply unpopular socialist President Francois Hollande are so close that gaps between candidates fall within the margin of error.

A Harris Interactive poll showed Macron and Le Pen still in front, with the gap a bit wider than before. The centrist inched ahead to 24.5 percent while Le Pen was a bit weaker on 21 percent.

Conservative former prime minister Francois Fillon scored 20 percent, meaning he was now gaining on Le Pen.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far left politician propelled from wildcard to genuine contender thanks to feisty television performances and smart social media campaign, was stable on 19 percent. An Ifop-Fiducial poll showed roughly the same breakdown.

All 11 candidates fielded questions on television about their policies on Thursday evening, the last real chance in the election spotlight for some of them after a tumultuous campaign of surprises and scandal.

FRANCE’S PLACE IN EUROPE

The election will decide the direction of France’s 2.2 trillion euro economy, which vies with Britain for the rank of fifth largest in the world. With eurospectics Le Pen and Melenchon in the race, the outcome could have a bearing on France’s place in Europe.

The outcome will be watched closely by France’s allies given its role as a nuclear-armed permanent veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and its military and diplomatic clout in the Middle East and West Africa.

Macron, a former banker who quit as economy minister last August to set up his independent “En Marche!” (“Onwards!”) movement, would beat Le Pen or any other candidate in the run-off, the Harris poll showed, echoing other polls.

On Thursday evening, Macron won the support of former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a conservative Gaullist who won global celebrity by dramatically opposing U.S. plans for war in Iraq.

Fillon, 63, was seen to be on an easy ride to the Elysee Palace at the beginning of the year but his campaign hit the rocks following nepotism allegations that he has denied.

His ratings have gradually recovered and on Thursday he redoubled attempts to dissuade his core voters from straying to Macron’s camp.

Seizing on a foiled attack this week in which he and other candidates were seen as potential targets, Fillon sought to reinforce his credentials as a strong pair of hands on…

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