ARRAS, France--French President Emmanuel Macron has maintained and possibly slightly extended his lead over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen following a prickly television head-to-head debate which he was judged to have won, polls showed on Thursday.
With just three days to go before Sunday's election run-off, the two were back on the campaign trail - Macron in a Paris suburb with a strong left-wing vote, and Le Pen in the north of the country where she has a loyal following.
"Why wait for Macron to step down when, by using your vote, you can fire him?" Le Pen told a rally in the town of Arras in which she urged a "silent majority" opposed to Macron not to facilitate his victory by abstaining.
The latest polls suggested the incumbent was gaining momentum: Three separate surveys all including responses gathered on Thursday after the TV debate showed Macron's score either stable or slightly rising to reach between 55.5% and 57.5%. But they also put the turnout rate at between 72% and 74%, which would be the lowest for a presidential run-off since 1969.
Viewers of Wednesday's televised encounter between the two final candidates deemed Macron prone to bouts of high-handedness with Le Pen but also found him more convincing and fit to be president, a separate Elabe poll for BFM TV showed.
Le Pen, who focused on expressing empathy with people she said had "suffered" since Macron beat her in 2017, was judged slightly more in tune with voters' concerns but her far-right views were still considered much more worrying, the poll showed. "Did she give the impression she is ready to govern?" Le Parisien said in an editorial on Thursday. "Judging by the debate, she did not dispel that doubt."
Other analysts said the debate should be taken with a pinch of salt as only 15.5 million people tuned in to watch it, the smallest audience ever recorded for such an event.
The centrist, former merchant banker Macron is a staunch supporter of the European Union and the kind of internationalism which has in recent years suffered setbacks from events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Le Pen says he embodies an elitism that has failed ordinary people. Her policies include a ban on Muslim headscarves in public, giving French nationals priority on jobs and benefits, and limiting Europe's rules on cross-border travel.
Macron on Thursday sought to win new supporters in a photo opportunity at a boxing club in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis: a key target for both candidates which voted heavily for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round. "Things are not changing quickly enough," he acknowledged to a gathering of locals there, promising to put more resources into housing, security, education and job opportunities for underprivileged communities.