French presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen faced off in a combative live television debate that veered into ill-tempered exchanges on Wednesday evening.
Finding no subject on which they could agree, the pair clashed over how to deal with unemployment, terrorism, taxes and health provisions.
Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front, accused the centrist Macron of being soft on terrorism. Macron said the terrorist threat was the priority for years to come. She insisted those on security lists for having fundamentalist sympathies must be immediately expelled, and those with dual nationality should be stripped of their French citizenship. Macron responded that those with suicidal intentions did not care much about their nationality.
Macron repeated several times that Le Pen was "talking nonsense."
At one point, when Le Pen called for cheaper medicines, Macron retorted that 80% of drugs were made abroad and since she wanted to tax imports, this would make them more expensive.
The pair continued to snipe at each other in a fractious display of opposing views.
Summing up, the nationalist Le Pen said: "People may say I'm old-fashioned, but I like France as it is, with its culture, heritage, language and borders. Without these borders we aren't free and independent. Mr Macron, you want France to be open to mass immigration just so you can put downward pressure on wages. ...That's your plan to weaken France."
In a blistering response in which he called Le Pen "a parasite," Macron responded: "Marine Le Pen, your tactic is to sully the reputation of your adversary. You don't care about the country. It is all falsification and lying. … I want a real renewal of France, a new face for France, and one that is not extreme right. The country deserves better."
Just four days from Sunday's second-round runoff, both candidates were hoping the face-to-face debate — the only one planned — would persuade the 18% of French voters who are still undecided or said they would not bother to vote, according to an Elabe opinion poll.
Various opinion polls concur that Macron is on track to win. Heading into the debate, he was favored by about 60% of voters, with Le Pen trailing at 40%, figures that have remained stable since the first-round vote on April 23.
Both candidates are looking to pick up support from the two main defeated candidates, conservative Francois Fillon and the hard left's Jean-Luc Melenchon. The candidate of the ruling Socialist Party, Benoit Hamon, came fifth in the first round vote. Fillon and Hamon have endorsed Macron. Melenchon, regarded as a French Bernie Sanders, has been fiercely criticized for refusing to support either candidate, although he has urged his supporters not to give "one single vote" to Le Pen.
Macron, an independent running with the En Marche! (Onward!) political movement, had promised the debate would be "hand-to-hand combat," with the aim of exposing the holes in Le Pen's anti-Europe, anti-euro, anti-immigration program that he has described as "dangerous."
In recent days, Le Pen has appeared backtrack on pledges to pull France out of the euro currency and return to the French franc, and to organize a Brexit-style referendum on France leaving the European Union. These proposals are popular with her National Front supporters, but have alienated her from mainstream conservative voters whose ballots she needs to win on Sunday.
Le Pen's avowed aim was to portray her rival, who has never held an elected post, as naive, inexperienced and a clone of the deeply unpopular François Hollande, France's outgoing president, in whose government Macron served as finance minister. Since the first-round vote 10 days ago, Le Pen has launched increasingly aggressive attacks on Macron, who supports the EU and the global economy, accusing him of representing the "Paris elite" against the ordinary French person.
Every aspect of the debate, which ran longer than 2 1/2 hours in prime time, had been agreed to by the candidates or subject to a random draw. Macron sat to the left of the screen, Le Pen to the right, exactly 8.2 feet apart; she drew to speak first and Macron to conclude.
It was broadcast on the state television station France 2 and the private channel TF1. It had stiff competition from a major European soccer final, the Champions Cup, between Monaco and the Italian club Juventus that was being broadcast at the same time.
Before the debate, Le Pen went on the offensive with an acerbic tweet.
"If Mr Macron doesn't feel comfortable, he can always ask François Hollande to come and hold his hand. I wouldn't object," she wrote.
Throughout the campaign she has frequently referred to Macron's background as a former Rothschild banker. Nicolas Lebourg, an expert on European far-right parties and member of the Jean-Jaurès political think tank, said she was using the usual "spoken codes of anti-Semitism."
His colleague, Jean-Yves Camus, said he had been shocked by the "rhetorical violence" of the election campaign, particularly from Le Pen.
"The way she describes her rivals shows she regards him not just a political adversary but someone who is her enemy," he said.
If Macron, 39, wins as expected, he will become France's youngest president. His first challenge will be to form a political party and find candidates across the country to stand for legislative elections to the French parliament.
Willsher is a special correspondent.
3:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with candidates' closing statements.