France's tumultuous presidential election battle steps up a gear Monday as the main candidates face off in the first of several TV debates, gunning for every vote with just a month to go.
In France's most unpredictable election in years, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron have been running neck-and-neck for weeks, with the latest opinion poll showing the centrist just half a percentage point ahead for the first round of voting on April 23.
Monday's debate will be an unprecedented chance for French voters to compare candidates before the first round as the frontrunners will share the stage with trailing candidates Francois Fillon of the right and Benoit Hamon of the left, along with the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon.
All 11 contenders, spanning the spectrum from Trotskyist left to the far right, will take part in another debate on April 4.
Advisors to 48-year-old Le Pen, who polls show would lose to Macron in the May 7 run-off if the election were held today, said she would tear into the "globalist" programme of her pro-EU rival.
The 39-year-old former economy minister will also come under pressure from Fillon, who will attempt to claw back votes lost to Macron since he became embroiled in a damaging fake jobs scandal.
Polls currently show Fillon, the one-time favourite, crashing out in the first round behind Le Pen and Macron, following revelations of payments by parliament to his wife and children as well as loans and lavish gifts from wealthy friends.
The 63-year-old former premier, who has been charged with misuse of public funds, will attempt to shift the focus to his programme, including the radical spending cuts he says will be France's only hope for real change.
Two men representing the ailing left — the Socialist Party's Hamon and Communist-backed radical Melenchon, currently fourth and fifth in the polls — are also hoping to use Monday's three-hour television joust to sway millions of undecided voters.
"These elections are a pivotal moment for the French people," Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist rebel who has struggled to make an impact, told a packed rally in Paris on Sunday.
In a taste of what awaits Macron on Monday, Hamon laid in to the former Rothschild banker, casting him as the candidate of the elite. "You're unemployed? Start your own company! You're poor? Become billionaires!" he said, alluding to remarks by Macron, an economic liberal.
Turnout Key Factor
The election, in which several political veterans have already been sent packing by voters fed up with politics as usual, could hinge on turnout.
While The Netherlands enjoyed near-record turnout exceeding 80 percent in its general election last week, polls in France show that only around 65 percent of voters are planning to vote in the first round, which would be a record low.
Of those, more than two in five say they are not yet wedded to any candidate.
Supporters of Macron, who styles himself as a progressive transcending France's entrenched left-right divide, are among the most volatile while Le Pen's are the most loyal, polls show.
"The 2017 campaign is hard to get a handle on," Pascal Perrineau, a political science professor at Sciences Po university, wrote in Le Monde at the weekend, blaming the steady drip of "scandals, real or imagined" for preventing real debate.
While most of the focus has been on Fillon's legal woes and the disconnect with the "irreproachable" image that helped him win the nomination of the rightwing Republicans, Le Pen also goes into the election with several investigations hanging over the National Front (FN).
Macron, a relative newcomer to politics, has largely avoided scandal but could be tainted by an investigation into possible favouritism over a 2016 event in Las Vegas at which he was the main speaker.
His predicted runoff with Le Pen will be the most surprising since 2002 when the FN leader's father Jean-Marie Le Pen rocked the political establishment by getting into the second round in 2002 where he eventually lost to conservative Jacques Chirac.