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PARIS: Hard-left presidential challenger Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative Francois Fillon were neck-and-neck behind the frontrunners in an opinion poll on Thursday, as candidates made last-ditch appeals to undecided voters.

Voters will cast their ballots on Sunday in the first round of what has transformed into the most unpredictable French election in living memory, with four candidates within reach of the two places in a run-off a fortnight later.

Pollsters forecast the most likely outcome of the first round is that centrist Emmanuel Macron will go head-to-head against far-right leader Mar­ine Le Pen in the May 7 second round. But the race to succeed the deeply unpopular socialist President Francois Holla­nde has tightened in recent weeks.

A Harris Interactive poll showed Melenchon, propelled from wildcard to genuine contender in part thanks to feisty television performances and smart social media campaign, was level with one-time favourite Fillon with 19 per cent of support.

That put the two men only three percentage points behind Le Pen — on 22 per cent — and trailing Macron, who consolidated his status as the frontrunner on 25 per cent.

Fillon’s ratings have gradually recovered after his campaign hit the rocks following nepotism allegations. Seizing on a foiled attack this week in which he and other candidates were seen as potential targets, the 63-year-old former prime minister sought to reinforce his credentials as a tough pair of hands on security. “In the fight against militant Islam, like on everything else, Emmanuel Macron stance’s is blurry,” Fillon told Le Figaro newspaper.

Melenchon, meanwhile, in an interview with BFM TV, pressed his criticism of European Union institutions — a stance that has increasingly worried investors as his support has grown.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2017