PARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen will be back on the campaign trail on Thursday after the far-right candidate failed, in a high-stakes TV debate, to deliver the knockout blow she needed ahead of Sunday's vote.
Viewers of the only debate between the two final candidates on Wednesday evening deemed a combative Macron arrogant but also found him more convincing and fit to be president, an Elabe poll for BFM TV showed.
Le Pen, who focused on expressing empathy with people she said had "suffered" since Macron was elected 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.
With surveys before the debate showing Macron was ahead in voting intentions for Sunday's runoff with an estimated 55-56% of the votes, that was not good news for Le Pen, who came second to Macron in the 2017 presidential election.
"Did she give the impression she is ready to govern? It's the only question that matters," the widely-read Le Parisien said in an editorial on Thursday. "Judging by the debate, she did not dispel that doubt."
For the conservative Le Figaro, the debate would not have changed voters' minds.
Macron will be campaigning on Thursday 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.
Le Pen will head to northern France, with an evening rally in Arras, a town that voted slightly more for Macron in a region that is otherwise a far-right stronghold.
It is unclear if the last two days of campaigning will change any votes.
But Macron's lead in opinion polls, while growing, is much narrower than five years ago, when he beat Le Pen with 66.1% of the vote.
"Although Macron's roughly 10-point lead in the polls is well ahead of any conceivable margin of error, recent history is littered with shock election results, so it would be naïve to think that Le Pen cannot deliver a surprise win," said Dean Turner, Chief Eurozone and UK Economist at UBS Global Wealth Management's Chief Investment Office.
The premium investors demand to hold French bonds over their German equivalent was largely stable on Thursday following the debate, suggesting they are sanguine about the likely outcome of Sunday's vote.
But with some degree of risk factored in, a Macron victory could see a modest bounce for French assets and the euro, Turner said in a note.
Supporters of both candidates were on the offensive on Thursday, trying to win the narrative on how the debate went.
"Marine Le Pen is in real life, Macron is in the McKinsey cosmos," National Rally spokesperson Julien Odoul tweeted, in a reference to the consultancy firm whose use by the government has been much criticised by the opposition.
On the Macron side, ministers were hammering on one of Macron's strongest lines of attacks in the debate - Le Pen's past admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the loan she contracted with a Russian bank for her 2017 campaign.
"When you owe money, you cannot be free," Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told CNews.
In one sign of uncertainty over the election outcome, only 15.5 million people watched the debate on Wednesday, the smallest audience ever recorded for such an event. Pollsters have said the runoff could see record abstentions and blank ballots cast.
Whoever wins on Sunday will only have done so after a bitter, divisive campaign, which could bode ill for their capacity to win a parliamentary majority in June and implement reforms.
If Macron wins, as polls forecast, he could face a difficult second term, with little to no grace period and voters of all stripes likely to take to the streets again over his plan to continue his pro-business reforms.
If Le Pen wins, radical changes to France's domestic and international policies would be expected, and street protests could start immediately.
(Reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Dominique Vidalon; additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Marc Angrand; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Catherine Evans)