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French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen have attacked each other in interviews and media walks as latest polls showed the gap between them narrowing on the final day of the campaign ahead of Sunday’s first-round vote.

Macron said Le Pen was “lying” to voters about her “racist” manifesto program, which includes banning the Muslim headscarf, and accused her of “complacency” in her ties to Russian Vladimir Putin.

He said in an interview with Le Parisien that Le Pen’s social policy aimed to “divide society in the most brutal way”; it would create mass unemployment and scare off foreign investors; and that his cost-of-living policies were “funded with counterfeit money”.

Of Putin, he said: “I have never been complacent. This has not always been the case with Marine Le Pen, who is financially dependent on Vladimir Putin and his regime and who has always been complacent with him. The war in Ukraine remains the second most important topic for French voters after fears of making ends meet amid the cost of living crisis.

Le Pen, whose far-right party took out a €9m loan from a Russian bank in 2014 for a local election campaign, said the ‘violence’ of Macron’s remarks showed he was panicking . She said she condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that Macron had been “very aggressive” in the campaign, which betrayed her own “nervousness”.

Le Pen told a final jubilant rally in her party’s southern stronghold of Perpignan that she had never been closer to power. She compared Macron to a “stunned boxer”.

Elections in France: Macron’s lead over Le Pen shrinks as the vote approaches |  France
Marine Le Pen campaigning in Narbonne, southern France. Photography: Chesnot/Getty Images

The latest polls show the two candidates most likely to reach a second round on April 24 are Macron and Le Pen, but far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon is also gaining support. The latest OpinionWay-Kea Partners poll showed Macron at 26% in the first round and Le Pen at 22%. Mélenchon has steadily climbed to 17%.

An Ifop poll showed similar trends: Macron had fallen from his peak by more than 30% in March and stood at 26.5%, with Le Pen rising to 24%. Mélenchon was in third position, but a winner. Le Pen’s continued rise over the past week is significant. This is her third presidential bid and in previous elections she had lost ground in the polls last week.

The latest Elabe poll for BFMTV, released on Friday, showed that if Macron faced Le Pen in a second-round final on April 24, he would win with 51% to Le Pen’s 49% – his highest position in the polls. That lead is so small it is within the margin of error, and pollsters said there is now a mathematical possibility that Le Pen could win the presidential election. Everything will depend on the result of the first round and turnout on Sunday, and whether supporters of other parties will vote tactically to stop the far right, as they have done in the past. In 2017, Macron beat Le Pen with 66% after voters from the left and mainstream right moved to arrest the National Rally politician.

Le Pen became the French people’s second favorite political figure this month, behind former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. Her decade-long public relations campaign to detoxify her party’s booted image has borne fruit in recent weeks as she focused on the cost-of-living crisis.

The presence on the campaign trail of a new rival, far-right television pundit Éric Zemmour, worked in Le Pen’s favor, as his inflammatory comments and convictions for incitement to racial hatred allowed Le Pen to present itself as more moderate, even if its radical anti-immigration manifesto remains the same and would prioritize French people over non-French people for housing, jobs and social benefits.

Macron, questioned by RTL radio if he feared losing, said: “Nothing is certain… [but] I have a spirit of conquest more than a spirit of defeat.

Sunday’s vote should mark a new stage in the transformation of national politics in France. The two parties that have succeeded each other in power since the post-war period until five years ago – the Socialists and the Republicans of Nicolas Sarkozy on the Gaullist right – today only total around 10%.

Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, was expected to take 2%, confirming her party’s decline on the national stage. The Republicans could implode if their candidate, Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Île-de-France region which includes Paris, sinks to 8% as predicted by the Elabe poll.

Zemmour is on a par with Pécresse, jostling to take part in a rebuilding of the French right by forming a far-right grouping of what he calls the “patriotic bourgeoisie” and working-class voters. Yannick Jadot of the Greens is at 4%.

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