Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has edged to the front of the opinion polls following the first TV debate. The five main nominees for president faced questions on the economy, immigration and welfare.
Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister, appeared along with the National Front leader and three other candidates vying to replace Socialist Francois Hollande in the two-round presidential election in April and May.
The live-televised debate quickly turned to immigration, security and Islam in the wake of several terror attacks across France, and Macron was accused by Le Pen of being in favor of the burkini, the full-body swimsuit worn by Muslim women, and banned last summer by several coastal towns.
"You are lying (to voters) by twisting the truth," retorted Macron, who is running as an independent.
He then accused the anti-immigration Le Pen of trying to divide the French over the garment, which the National Front leader wants to ban completely.
But Le Pen insisted the burkini was an example of the "rise of radical Islam in our country."
In two early opinion polls on Tuesday, Macron was judged the most convincing candidate. In an Elabe poll of 1,157 people, 29 percent of viewers gave their approval to Macron. Leftist Jean-Luc Melechon who held his first rally in Paris at the weekend, placed second with a score of 20 percent while Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen came in one point behind at 19 percent. Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon trailed with 11 percent.
For a OpinionWay poll of of 1,037 viewers, Macron led with 24 percent followed by Fillon and Le Pen at 19 percent and Melenchon at 15 percent. Hamon was last on 10 percent.
Macron's campaign has also been boosted by backing from members of President Francois Hollande's government. Ecology party lawmaker and biodiversity minister Barbara Pompili announced she was giving her support to Macron after the debates. She was the first government minister to do so. "I've decided after weighing it up seriously to back the endeavour, the programme and the candidacy of Emmanuel Macron," Pompili told France Info radio.
Shortly afterwards, Bernard Poignant, a close adviser to Hollande, said he was also backing Macron.
A later Opinionway survey confirmed previous polls with Le Pen tipped to win 27 percent of the vote in the April 23 first round, three points ahead of Macron. But Macron would easily beat Le Pen in the May 7 runoff.
Le Pen: I won't be Merkel's vice chancellor
The far-right leader, who has vowed to take France out of the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership in the wake of the Brexit vote, said she didn't want to be "vice chancellor to Ms. Merkel," in a dig at the German leader, who she has accused to dictating policy to the rest of Europe.
But Le Pen was repeatedly forced into defensive mode over her program, which her rivals said would cause "economic and social chaos," and later grew defiant when asked about migration.
"I want to put an end to immigration, that's clear," she declared, complaining that the security situation in France was "explosive."
Monday's debate was the first time Le Pen and Macron have confronted each other in a public forum.
Buoyed by Trump
The two candidates have been polling neck-and-neck for weeks to win the first round of voting on April 23, although analysts say Le Pen has little chance of winning the run-off of the top two candidates in May. Still, after Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump, few pundits are willing to rule out a win for her.
Alongside the two frontrunners were Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, euroskeptic leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, and scandal-plagued conservative Francois Fillon.
Just a few months ago, third-placed Fillon was considered a clear favorite after defeating former President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Republican party primary.
However, a 'fake job' investigation uncovered evidence that he paid his wife a large salary as a parliamentary aide although she allegedly carried out little work. Since then, he has struggled to forge a connection with voters.
Fillon, who is a former prime minister, also criticized Merkel, making reference to her "(refugee) policies that turned out to be bad policies, and are now criticized even by her own allies in Germany."
Fillon sought to claw back votes by emphasizing his political experience, hitting out at Le Pen's plans to ditch the single currency.
"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," he scolded.
'Traditional parties have failed'
Macron, who is running as an independent, insisted that he was "not part of the establishment," although he's the most europhile of all the candidates.
"The traditional parties, those who have for decades failed to solve yesterday's problems, won't be able to do it tomorrow either," he added.
Another TV debate has been scheduled for April 4.
mm,es/jm (AFP, Reuters)