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French President Macron and Le Pen to face off in televised debate

LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

(SAINT-DENIS, France) — French President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, his far-right rival in the presidential elections, will face off in the highly anticipated televised debate Wednesday, which could prove crucial in swaying voters ahead of the final round of voting this weekend.

Macron and Le Pen took the top two spots in the preliminary round of voting earlier this month, just as they did in 2017. The debate of that year proved disastrous for Le Pen, who struggled under questioning. Macron ultimately won a sweeping victory in 2017, winning 66% of the vote.

This campaign cycle has been notably different, however. The war in Ukraine has dominated the headlines, Le Pen has sought to soften her National Rally party’s image and ease voters’ concerns about a far-right president, while Macron has been a notably absent figure on the campaign trail.

Polling in France has shown an upswing in Le Pen’s popularity and decline in Macron’s, though the French president retains a narrow lead in most reported opinion polls.

Le Pen has faced criticism in France for a softer approach to Russia and past support for President Vladimir Putin. While she has said she is in favor of the broad package of sanctions announced by the French government, she has publicly opposed restrictions on oil and gas imports from Russia, citing concerns about the rising cost of living in France that has become a critical issue in the campaign.

Le Pen was previously banned from entering Ukraine in 2017, when she spoke out in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

While Le Pen has pledged if elected to take France out of NATO’s integrated command, she said she would not intend to leave the organization altogether, nor renounce Article 5, which refers to the “mutual protection between members of the Atlantic Alliance.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an interview with French television channel BFMTV aired Wednesday, went as far as to urge Le Pen to reconsider her position on Russia.

“If the candidate were to understand that she was wrong, our relationship could change,” Zelenskyy said. While ensuring not “to have the right to influence” the French electoral campaign, Zelenskyy recognized that “obviously, I have relations with Emmanuel Macron and I would not want to lose them.”

The final outcome of the election may well be decided by matters closer to home, however, with Macron’s team touting his experience in power at a time of stability, while Le Pen’s campaign has targeted the incumbent for, they say, being out of touch with ordinary people.

The far-right candidate focused her campaign on purchasing power, a topic expected to be one of the main factors in deciding the outcome of the election. Le Pen’s project, however, still centers on the fight against immigration. The National Rally candidate has presented several flagship proposals, including a bill to drastically limit immigration, the abolition of the right of soil, and restricting the routes for people to claim asylum in France.

“Fear is the only argument that the current president has to try and stay in power at all cost,” Le Pen said in a new clip posted by her campaign Tuesday.

Much will depend on which candidate the supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon turn to in the final round. Mélenchon secured 22% of the first round of voting in third place, and while he publicly told his supporters not to vote for Le Pen, her populist vision may prove more enticing to a base dissatisfied with Macron, a centrist with a background in the financial sector.

The debate, airing at 8 p.m. local time (3 p.m. EST), is the first and only time voters will have a chance to see the candidates face off.

ABC News’ Ibtissem Guenfoud contributed to this report.

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