PERPIGNAN: French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said Thursday she had never been "so close" to power at a jubilant final rally before this weekend's election, which polls suggest is an increasingly tight battle between her and President Emmanuel Macron.
In front of around 4,000 upbeat supporters chanting "President Marine!" and "We're going to win!", Le Pen promised to help French families struggling with inflation and compared Macron to a "stunned boxer".
"Never before has the prospect of a real change been so close, but it depends on you," Le Pen told the crowd in far-right stronghold Perpignan in southern France.
"Never forget and tell people around you: if the people vote, the people will win," she said in a speech that repeatedly appealed to the roughly one quarter of French adults who are projected to abstain on Sunday.
Last month, polls suggested Macron had an almost unassailable lead ahead heading into the first round and would go on to win the second-round run-off scheduled for April 24.
But all bets are off, with up to a quarter of voters thought to be undecided and surveys suggesting a major swing towards Le Pen, who is now shown as only marginally behind the president.
With France's traditional right- and left-wing parties facing electoral disaster, rising far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon still believes he can sneak into a run-off and is shown running third.
The war in Ukraine as well as strains on the health system after two years of Covid-19 are high among voter concerns, behind the biggest worries of all: inflation and incomes.
"We're going to live the founding moment of a new era," Le Pen, 53, added, a sentiment shared by many supporters in sun-drenched Perpignan, a short trip from the Spanish border.
"It's the first time that I feel this confident," said Mireille Redon, 74, who has voted for Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie for more than 20 years.
"I feel like she's ready. She's learned from her mistakes and seems much more confident in herself," she told AFP.
Meanwhile, Macron blasted his closest rival, accusing Le Pen of "lying to the people" over policies she will not be able to finance.
In an interview with readers of Le Parisien newspaper he said that while Le Pen had become mainstream "her fundamentals have not changed", with "a racist manifesto that aims to divide society".
The latest OpinionWay-Kea Partners survey out Thursday showed Macron falling back to 26 percent in the first round and Le Pen edging up to 22 percent, with Melenchon also gaining ground on 17.
Macron was shown beating Le Pen in the second round with 53 percent to her 47 if it were held today -- a narrower margin than the same pollsters forecast last week.
A new Ifop-Fidicual poll showed similar trends of Macron slipping and Le Pen gaining with the president on 26.5 percent in round one and Le Pen on 24 percent.
It indicated Macron would win the second round with 52 percent compared with Le Pen's 48.
"Our initial objective is to consolidate our lead and to prevent Marine Le Pen coming out ahead in the first round," a figure in Macron's ruling party, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
Another advisor added: "We see Marine Le Pen's dynamic and we will need to put on turbo engines for round two... It's not won until the end."
"I've acquired experience of crises, international experience. I've also learned from my mistakes," Macron told Le Figaro newspaper in an interview published Thursday.
"Emmanuel Macron keeps talking to us about crises, like a stunned boxer who is stuck thinking about the uppercut that put him on the floor," Le Pen replied in Perpignan.
Among the other chasing candidates, Melenchon is rising strongly in the polls and is talking up his chances of springing a surprise, helped by a confident rally Tuesday that saw him beamed by hologram into 11 French cities.
Greens candidate Yannick Jadot, conservative Valerie Pecresse, far-right former TV pundit Eric Zemmour and flagging Socialist nominee Anne Hidalgo also had rallies Thursday.
According to the Le Monde newspaper, Hidalgo hosted a secret dinner of Socialist grandees including ex-president Francois Hollande to discuss the party's post-election future, prompting allegations she had capitulated before the poll had even taken place.
Le Pen's speech in Perpignan underlined how she has toned down her anti-immigration rhetoric during campaigning this year in order to focus on household spending.
"Our programme is a social programme and I dare to say it and I take responsibility for it," she added, detailing how she would slash fuel taxes and increase pensions.
In an interview with RTL radio earlier in the day, she explained how she would implement a planned ban on the Muslim headscarf in public spaces, which experts believe would be unconstitutional.
"People will be given a fine in the same way that it is illegal to not wear your seat belt," she said.
She laughed at the idea that she could be demonised on her third run for the presidency despite Macron's intention of attacking her as economically reckless and xenophobic.
"Scare-mongering which entails saying that unless Emmanuel Macron is re-elected, it will be a crisis, the sun will be extinguished, the sea will disappear and we'll suffer an invasion of frogs, no longer works," she told RTL.