KIEV: Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, a political novice and favourite to win Kiev's presidential vote, will head to Paris Friday to meet French President Emmanuel Macron.
While many dismissed as a joke his bid to lead Ukraine - a country at war with Moscow-backed rebels - Zelensky defeated President Petro Poroshenko in the presidential vote's first round. Polls predict he will also win the election's run-off next Sunday.
The actor, whose only political experience is playing the president in a TV show, is due to meet Macron at the Elysee palace.
Poroshenko, meanwhile, will head to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before also meeting Macron in Paris later the same day.
The Ukrainian leader said the pre-election talks in France and Germany are crucial for "the fate of the Ukrainian state and of European security".
They were "especially important", he said, in the face of "attempts" to lift Western sanctions against Russia, imposed on Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
France and Germany are part of the so-called Normandy peace talks with Ukraine and Russia that aim to end a conflict between Kiev and the Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The war has killed 13,000 people over the past five years.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse Russia of supporting the rebels militarily. Moscow denies that.
Poroshenko, a 53-year-old former foreign minister, has positioned himself as the only candidate able to stand up to the Kremlin.
He is eager to make up lost ground before the run-off vote by showing off his experience and oratory.
Zelensky has said he will only debate Poroshenko in Kiev's Olympic Stadium, which seats over 70,000 people. The Ukrainian president has agreed, but the pair have so far given different dates for the event.
Zelensky, 41, has shunned traditional rallies, instead performing satirical shows and capitalising on frustration over corruption and economic trouble.
By welcoming him, Paris has caused some annoyance in Kiev.
"This is a very unpleasant and strange situation," a high-ranking Ukrainian diplomatic source told reporters.
Analysts say the decision to host the comedian is explained by his success in the Mar 31 first round, when he won 30 per cent of the vote. Poroshenko took almost 16 per cent.
A new poll released on Thursday showed 61 per cent of Ukrainians intend to vote for Zelensky in the second round on Sunday. It found only 24 per cent would back Poroshenko.
"France is showing that it knows what the direction the Ukrainian electorate is heading in towards and that it has to make contact," said Leonid Litra, an analyst at the Kiev-based New Europe Center.
Meeting Macron would allow the actor to make clear his vision of the peace process in eastern Ukraine that has currently stalled, Litra said.
Zelensky has suggested including the UK and the US in peace talks.
Despite Zelensky's inexperience, Litra said there is little risk of the frontrunner committing a serious faux-pas in Paris.
"It is not complicated to exchange courtesies. He knows how to do that," he said.
Despite the flamboyant media spectacle, the stakes are high for Ukraine, a country of 45 million seen as the biggest frontier between the European Union and Russia.
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and war erupted in eastern Ukraine.
Before the conflict with separatists began, Zelensky had struck a conciliatory tone, saying he was ready to "kneel" in front of Putin to avoid a military conflict.
After the first round of the vote, he said he would ask the Kremlin for compensation for the war and for taking Crimea.