Paris (AFP) -
President Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen on Thursday launched a final push for votes in working class heartlands of France after a pre-election debate marked by bitter clashes.
The televised debate on Wednesday evening -- a pivotal moment ahead of Sunday's run-off vote -- was marked by a highly aggressive performance by Macron, who lost no opportunity to attack his opponent throughout the marathon three-hour session.
Le Pen chose a more cautious approach, making every effort not to be ruffled by the incoming fire and clearly mindful not to repeat her flustered appearance in a 2017 debate that was widely derided as a fiasco.
The stakes are huge in the election, a rematch of the 2017 run-off between the two candidates. That earlier contest was easily won by Macron but the margin is far narrower this time.
Le Pen is contending to be the first far-right leader of France and Macron the first French president to win a second term since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
'Macron on the attack, Le Pen on the defensive,' headlined the Le Parisien daily in its Thursday edition.
Polls show Macron has a clear advantage over Le Pen of some 10 percentage points but allies warn nothing is in the bag due to the large number of undecided voters.
Both rivals have their eyes on left-wing voters and especially those who backed hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who finished third in the first-round vote on April 10.
The president was due on Thursday to visit the low-income Seine-Saint-Denis region outside Paris. He lagged far behind Melenchon in round one in the region, where purchasing power and housing have been voters' main concerns.
Le Pen was due to spend the day in the northern industrial region of Hauts-de-France -- where she enjoyed strong support in the first round -- winding up with a final campaign rally in the town of Arras.
- 'Boa constrictor' -
Brice Teinturier, director-general of the Ipsos polling group, told France 2 television that in a 'relentless' debate performance, Macron had tried to portray Le Pen as both dangerous and potentially incompetent, adopting an often 'condescending' tone.
'The accumulation of these elements can create an impression of conviction but also one of it being over the top and just too bloody,' he said.
Macron sought to land a direct hit on Le Pen against the background of Russia's invasion of Ukraine by focusing on a loan her party had taken from a Czech-Russian bank ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
'When you speak to Russia you are speaking to your banker,' he said, accusing his rival of being 'dependent' on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Le Pen replied that her party had only taken that loan because it could not find financing in France, where banks refused to lend to her.
Macron adopted a variety of poses to express scepticism at her arguments, raising his eyebrows, leaning his chin on his fists and lamenting in apparent bewilderment, 'Madame Le Pen... Madame Le Pen!'
The most explosive clash came when Le Pen confirmed she was sticking to her controversial policy of banning the wearing of the Islamic headscarf by women in public, describing it as a 'uniform imposed by Islamists'.
Macron responded: 'You are going to cause a civil war if you do that. I say this sincerely.'
She also sought to put heat on the president, mocking him as a 'Mozart of finance' who had left the economy in a poor state and a 'climate hypocrite' whose environmental credentials were a sham.
'It's not Gerard Majax (on TV) this evening,' retorted Macron, referring to a well-known French television conjurer. 'You never explain how you will finance your projects and you are not honest with people.'
Turning to Europe, Le Pen insisted she wanted to stay in the European Union but reform the bloc into an 'alliance of nations'.
'Your policy is to leave Europe,' Macron responded, describing the election as a 'referendum for or against the EU'.
A snap opinion poll by Elabe for BFM TV said 59 percent of viewers found Macron the most convincing, while 39 percent plumped for Le Pen.
The Le Monde daily said Le Pen's more cautious approach in the debate meant it was another 'missed chance' to put pressure on the pugnacious president.
'Like a boa constrictor, Emmanuel Macron seemed to gradually tighten his grip around his opponent until she suffocated,' it said.