France's Le Pen attacked as Macron passes first debate test


French far-right leader Marine Le Pen came under assault from all sides in a presidential election debate that provided a test of centrist Emmanuel Macron's ambitions to be leader.

Le Pen and Macron, the two leading candidates according to opinion polls with just over a month to go before voting begins, traded barbs in the televised debate watched by nearly 10 million people on Monday. Commentators agreed, however, that neither landed a knockout blow.

Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister who is untested at the ballot box, had the most to lose in his first major debate – and the first ever of the main candidates before the first round of voting – but he held his ground.

It was Le Pen, 48, who was repeatedly thrust onto the defensive as Macron, the conservative nominee Francois Fillon, the Socialist Party's Benoit Hamon and fifth-placed leftist radical Jean-Luc Melenchon all tore into her protectionist, anti-immigration programme.

Former frontrunner Fillon, who is trying to refocus attention on his politics after becoming embroiled in a host of scandals, said Le Pen's proposal to ditch the euro and bring back the franc would cause "economic and social chaos".

She accused him of "scaremongering".

Le Pen is hoping to ride the wave of populism that led British voters to choose to quit the EU and swept Donald Trump to power in the US, though the failure of the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders's party to perform more strongly in his country's general election last week was a setback to her hopes. While polls show that Le Pen would finish in the top two at the first round on 23 April, they also show that she would be handily beaten in the May 7 runoff by either Macron or Fillon.

Le Pen was playing to her support base when she accused Macron of being "in favour" of the burkini, a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women that was banned by several coastal French towns last year. He bridled at the suggestion, accusing her of "lying" by "twisting the truth" and seeking to "divide the French" over the issue.

Fillon, 63, who has slipped into third in the polls over accusations he paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for doing parliamentary work of which there is little record, tried to present himself as a safe and experienced pair of hands. The former prime minister poured scorn on Le Pen's proposal to pull out of the euro.

"You don't leave the euro and the protection afforded by the European Central Bank... for an adventure... that would ruin borrowers and savers alike," Fillon said.

Le Pen retorted: "That's called Project Fear, Mr Fillon. It was used before Brexit."

Le Parisien newspaper said the debate was "serious and educational" but "not decisive". It welcomed the focus on policy after a campaign so far overshadowed by Fillon's expenses woes and Le Pen's refusal to meet investigating magistrates over claims she misused European Parliament allowances.

"At last the subject was politics, which in a campaign in which scandals have obliterated policies and ideas, was starting to become urgent," Le Parisien said in an editorial.

The rightwing Le Figaro praised Macron, saying he was "omnipresent" in the debate "and outpaced his opponents".

Several commentators also lauded the firebrand Melenchon, noted for his rhetorical flourishes.

Former economy minister Macron was most animated when he took on Le Pen over the burkini. Le Pen said the garment was a sign of the "rise of radical Islam in our country" and accused Macron of supporting it. Macron said it was above all "a public order problem".

"Do not use it to divide the French," he told the National Front (FN) leader, accused her of trying to transform "the over four million French people, whose religion is Islam... into enemies of the Republic".

A former investment banker, Macron himself came under scrutiny over his links to the rich.

A total of 11 candidates, spanning the spectrum from the Trotskyist left to the far right, are running for president. Six other candidates currently with low polling numbers were excluded from Monday's debate, but are expected to take part in the next one.

Surveys show that millions of voters are still undecided after five years of unpopular Socialist rule under President Francois Hollande, marked by high unemployment, low growth and jihadist attacks that have killed over 230 people.    (AFP)

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