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French voters go to the polls in 4 days to choose between Macron or Le Pen

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tonight, French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, meet for a rematch of their contentious 2017 presidential debate. French voters go to the polls in just four days to choose between the two candidates for the second time. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, much has changed in five years.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Fired-up supporters of Marine Le Pen know their candidate has a real chance this time. She's run a strong campaign and moderated her image. Nonna Mayer, an expert of the far right, says Le Pen has completely changed the image of the National Rally party since taking over from her father in 2011.

NONNA MAYER: She has given a new electoral dynamic to the party because she's a woman and she has managed to speak to and to rally female voters, which were repulsed by the father.

BEARDSLEY: Mayer says Le Pen's mission to detoxify the party is working.

MAYER: Showing - saying, we are not anti-Semitic. We are not racist. We are defending France. We are defending the rights of women, of gays, of Jews against the terrible threat that is radical Islam.

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen got more help from further-right candidate Eric Zemmour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: His xenophobic tirades made Le Pen look even more mainstream. Le Pen supporter Mylene Chabert says she couldn't convince a single relation to vote Le Pen last time. This year, her whole family supports Marine.

MYLENE CHABERT: She has learn for the mistake she made, I think, with Macron, with the debat (ph) when they speak together. And it's five years - she work, work, work. And I think she understand she go direct to the people.

BEARDSLEY: Chabert is referring to the 2017 second-round debate that was a disaster for Le Pen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

MACRON: (Speaking French).

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: She came across as combative and chaotic compared with Macron's smooth mastery of every subject. This time around, Macron appeared too occupied with the war in Ukraine to even campaign ahead of the first round. The war did give Macron a boost in the poll, says Martin Quencez with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, but it was brief.

MARTIN QUENCEZ: The electors care about the domestic situation first, and we elect the French president with the intention to have someone to defend French interests.

BEARDSLEY: Macron is just now getting down in the trenches and taking some heat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I've never known a more worthless president than you," one voter told him. There's still bitterness from the working poor revolt known as the yellow vest movement and plenty of anger over the handling of the pandemic. Disgust for a president many see as arrogant and elitist runs deep in the French heartland. Macron is even backtracking on some of his unpopular positions, like raising the retirement age to attract voters. Analyst Nonna Mayer.

MAYER: He can try and soften his previous positions, but he must be credible. And it's so late.

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen, she says, never deflected from the core issues voters care about, like purchasing power and the cost of living.

MAYER: There's the fear of globalization. So she has managed to play on that and to say she was the protector, the defender of the little people, the forgotten ones.

BEARDSLEY: In 2017, Macron beat Le Pen with 66% of the vote. The latest polls show him leading, but with only 55% this time. Both candidates hope to gain points in tonight's highly anticipated face-off, which is expected to draw record television audiences.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.