Macron seen winning French TV debate, clashes with Le Pen on Islam

French candidates can agree that economy is running behind

Monday's debate was an unprecedented chance for French voters to compare candidates before the first round as the frontrunners shared the stage with trailing candidates Francois Fillon of the right and Benoit Hamon of the left, along with the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon.

A snap opinion poll showed Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister who has never run for public office before, was the most convincing among the top five contenders in a marathon debate of almost 3½ that delivered no knock-outs.

Macron reacted vigorously when Le Pen accused him of being in favour of Muslim swimwear - essentially suggesting that her rival isn't really committed to France's secular values and policies.

At times, especially when Macron talked of France's place in the world, it felt like Le Pen had a point.

As for the two leftist candidates Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon there was only one victor.

For her part Le Pen was combative and belligerent throughout especially when attacked on her hardline on Islam and her plan to pull France out of the euro. Television debates were key to Fillon's victory in the centre-right primaries in November and to Benoit Hamon in the Socialist primaries in January.

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron during the Re-invest France, the first of three televised debates before presidential elections next month. "When I have something to say, I say it clearly".

Only the top two candidates go through to the run-off, where polls show Macron easily beating Le Pen.

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He said: "No, Madame Le Pen don't put words in my mouth".

But the centrist Emmanuel Macron fired back as the competition between the pair intensified.

Le Pen blasted Macron for "speaking for seven minutes without actually saying anything" and Macron slammed Le Pen for "trying to divide the French" over the question of the full body Islamic swimsuit called the burqini.

But with so many voters undecided and polls showing the abstention rate could be higher than ever in France, the level of uncertainty remains high.

Mr Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister and investment banker who has never run for elected office, took offence.

Controversies raging in the French media over an investigation into financial irregularities surrounding conservative candidate Francois Fillon had little bearing on the debates while they have dominated recent news cycles.

The debate, the first between the five main candidates, may be crucial in helping viewers make up their minds in a French election that has seen major twists and turns. "I don't want to be the vice chancellor of Angela Merkel", she said, referring to the German leader. "It was used before Brexit, it was used before Donald Trump's election", she said, adding that the British economy was growing faster than the European Union and had lower unemployment despite Brexit.

Candidates will await the polls in the coming days to fully know who were the real winners and losers from the TV debate.

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