In their last debate before France picks its next president, candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have tussled for the hearts and minds of voters in live televised debates on Wednesday (3 May).

Upwards of 20 million people out of an electorate of 47 million are believed to have watched the debates, giving them the final steer ahead of Sunday's second round run-off.

And with the election considered France's most important in decades, both candidates came out swinging with bitter exchanges over immigration, security and Europe.

Le Pen, far-right leader of the Front National, launched a series of personal attacks, insisting that Macron was a continuation of the unpopular Socialist government and accused him of being a pawn of the banking class.

Macron, a former economy minister and founder of the En Marche party, instead focussed on policy, accusing Le Pen of lacking substance or coherence on those issues.

With Le Pen roughly 20 points behind Macron in the polls, it was expected that she would go on the attack. However, most agreed that Macron remained presidential throughout.

"In two hours of spouting, Le Pen has transformed the presidential debate into a verbal swamp. Macron is doing exceptionally well not to get dirty in it," Claude Askolovitch wrote on Twitter.

In reality, both candidates were not fighting to win over supporters from each other's camps, but from the nearly 20% of undecided voters.

Accusations on terrorism

The fiercest clashes came over national security ­– a loaded issue in a country where more than 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since 2015.

Le Pen accused Macron of being complacent on the threat of Islamist fundamentalism. However, he said he would make it a priority and accused Le Pen of being simplistic in her approach.

"I will lead a fight against Islamist terrorism at every level," Macron said, reports Reuters.

"But what they are wanting, the trap they are holding out for us, is the one that you offer – civil war."

Le Pen also said Macron would lay down before German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whereas she would put French interests first with control of currency, of borders and of trade agreements.

However Macron quickly countered and asked Le Pen if she envisages a return to the franc ­­– a topic she has been vague about – adding that such a move would be "nonsense" and claiming that its value would drop by 30% overnight.

Following the debate, most polls had Macron winning the election by 60% of the vote.

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Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron prior to the start of a live broadcast face-to-face televised debate in Paris Reuters