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(Left to right) French presidential election candidates: Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, pose before a debate organized by the French private TV channel TF1 on March 20, 2017 in Aubervilliers. (ELIOT BLONDET/AFP/Getty Images)
(Left to right) French presidential election candidates: Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, pose before a debate organized by the French private TV channel TF1 on March 20, 2017 in Aubervilliers. (ELIOT BLONDET/AFP/Getty Images)

Outsiders Macron, Le Pen take charge in French debate Add to ...

France’s presidential election campaign entered a new phase Monday night with a fiery television debate that marked a first for France.

All five leading contenders in the race met for 2 1/2 hours on TF1, tackling a range of topics from immigration and security to the display of religious symbols in public. It marked the first time a debate has been held before the first round of voting and it signalled the intensity of the campaign and the public’s interest. Typically only the two candidates facing off in the second round meet in a debate.

There was much at stake during the evening with the front-runners: The National Front’s Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! came under attack from the other three – Socialist Benoît Hamon; François Fillon of the Republican Party; and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Mr. Macron turned on Ms. Le Pen at one point, accusing her of lying about his platform and defaming him about being beholden to wealthy backers. He told her to stop putting words in his mouth, saying: “I don’t need a ventriloquist to speak in my place.” Ms. Le Pen stuck largely to her positions on immigration and security, attacking radical Islam and saying she would “stop immigration, legal and illegal.”

Opinion polls show French voters are turning away from establishment politicians and embracing Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen, who are both campaigning as outsiders. That has increased uncertainty across Europe about France’s future in the European Union. Financial markets have been rattled, too, and yields on French bonds have been rising in recent days, a sign of insecurity among investors.

The recent election in the Netherlands has given EU backers hope that Mr. Macron, a centre-left candidate who supports France’s continued membership in the Union, can beat back Ms. Le Pen who wants to pull the country out of the EU and restrict immigration. Dutch voters turned away from firebrand Geert Wilders, who also campaigned on a platform of cutting immigration and quitting the EU. The economies in most euro-zone countries, including France, have also begun to turn around and unemployment is falling, giving a further lift to supporters of the EU.

During Monday’s debate, Ms. Le Pen, 48, poured scorn on the EU, saying she didn’t want to be the “vice-chancellor of [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel,” and adding, “I don’t aspire to be the administrator of a vague region of the European Union.” But the other candidates attacked her for allegedly being fiscally irresponsible and pitting communities against one another.

Mr. Macron, 39, stressed his political independence and experience in the business world. He formed En Marche! last year after stepping down as the economy minister in the cabinet of President François Hollande, a position he’d held for two years. “I have not been part of political life for many years, or many decades,” he said, a pointed reference to Mr. Fillon, 63, who is a former prime minister and has been an elected official for more than 30 years.

Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron have been pulling away from the field, according to recent opinion polls, and they are now tied with around 25 per cent support each. Mr. Fillon had been considered a front-runner a few months ago, but he is now lagging in third place. His campaign has been derailed by a police investigation into allegations he put his wife on the public payroll, even though she did no work.

If the polls are correct, Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron would finish first and second in the first round of balloting on April 23 and advance to a second-round faceoff on May 7. Polls show Mr. Macron would win handily.

The big loser so far has been Mr. Hamon, 49, the candidate of the Socialist Party, which once ruled the National Assembly and holds the presidency under Mr. Hollande, who was elected in 2012 but decided not to run again because of his low standing in opinion polls. Mr. Hamon is in fourth place and could fall to fifth behind Mr. Mélenchon, who is 65.

The debate and the campaign have been closely followed in France. “If we look at the [television] ratings of the debates during primaries, whether conservative or on the progressive side, the ratings were very, very high,” said Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist who lectures at Sciences Po University in Paris.

Ms. Bacharan and other analysts said Mr. Macron had the most at stake in the debate. He has come out of nowhere and taken the lead in some polls. Much of his support comes from urban professionals and it’s not clear how his message of reform will resonate in the countryside, which is the stronghold of the National Front.

“Most definitely, without any doubt, it’s Emmanuel Macron who has the most to win or lose from the debate,” Ms. Bacharan said. “He has to prove that he is strong, that he’s clear that he knows how to live with competition. He’s untested.”

By contrast, she said Ms. Le Pen has to try to broaden her appeal. Most polls indicate she is stuck at around 40 per cent of the vote, enough to get to the second-round ballot but not enough to win. She has been at pains during the campaign to tone down the National Front’s rhetoric, going so far as to banish her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the organization and to moderate the party’s hard-line positions on issues such as abortion, which she now accepts in some circumstances.

“Her strategy of transforming the National Front into a mainstream party has been working very well,” Ms. Bacharan said.

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