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PARIS – France's presidential candidates could hardly be more different: Pro-European progressive Emmanuel Macron is facing far-right, anti-immigration Marine Le Pen in their only direct debate Wednesday ahead of Sunday's runoff election. They differ on Europe, terrorism and in their personal styles.
Macron is passionately promoting common European ideals of peace, prosperity and freedom. With Britain leaving, he says the bloc needs to build a new leadership base anchored by France and Germany.
He wants the bloc to be able to deploy 5,000 European guards to the external borders of the Schengen passport-free travel zone, and proposes a European fund to finance and develop shared military equipment.
Le Pen wants to pull France out of the European Union. She advocates closing France's borders, adopting protectionist trade policies and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the French franc. She promised to restore France as a sovereign state in charge of its own borders and money supply, and to crack down on immigration.
She considers Macron "an immigrationist" because he has backed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's policy of welcoming refugees from Syria.
Le Pen asked a television program to remove the European flag from the stage during her speech. During Macron's rallies, by contrast, many supporters wave European flags alongside French flags.
FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM
In a country traumatized by a series of attacks by Islamic extremists, Le Pen and Macron both pledged to boost police and military and intelligence services.
Yet their views on international policies are starkly different.
Macron pledges to keep up French operations against extremists in Iraq and Syria and Africa's Sahel region; Le Pen wants France to be militarily independent and to leave NATO's military command to avoid being "drawn into others' wars."
Macron proposes to increase the French defense budget to at least 2 percent of GDP by 2025, up from 1.78 percent now — in line with NATO targets — and to keep the overall number of troops stable at 200,000.
Le Pen promises to reach 3 percent of GDP by 2022, adding 50,000 more soldiers, a second aircraft carrier and more jets, ships and armored vehicles.
Le Pen firmly backs the Syrian regime and distanced herself from U.S. President Donald Trump over recent U.S. airstrikes targeting President Bashar Assad's regime, and she is friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Macron wants international pressure on Assad and to maintain sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.
Bold and gritty, Le Pen, 48, is an experienced party leader making her second bid for the French presidency. She has held elected office several times in northern France and has been a European lawmaker since 2004.
On stage, she favors a classic style, often wearing somber suits or playing on the blue-white-red colors of the French flag.
In her speeches she uses dramatic, cut-to-the-chase expressions and doesn't hesitate to harshly criticize her rivals.
Macron, 39, has never held elected office. He is a literature lover who likes to quote French authors in his lengthy speeches. He asks his supporters not to boo other politicians.
He's leading an American-style campaign in which he often appears publicly with his wife Brigitte, 24 years his senior. Le Pen's long-time companion, Louis Aliot, remains more discreet.
Even their music choices contrast: Macron's supporters were dancing to modern techno music during his election party in a Parisian exhibition center. Le Pen's militants were celebrating with 1980s standards in her town of Henin-Beaumont in northern France.