A televised debate has been held involving all eleven presidential candidates standing in France's election. The focus is on centrist Emmanuel Macron, the far-right's Marine Le Pen and conservative Francois Fillon.
France's three-and-half-hour presidential debate was held on Tuesday evening, offering outsiders, including right-winger Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a rare chance to step into the electoral spotlight.
It was the first time that all candidates had debated before the first round of a presidential election in France.
Verbal exchanges focused on three topics as the candidates competed for air time to present their platforms on creating jobs, the republic's social welfare model and protecting the French public in the wake of terrorist attacks.
Macron promoted pro-free market, pro-European views. Le Pen expressed support for a "clever" protectionism. "Without a clever protectionism, we are going to watch jobs being destroyed one after another" Le Pen said.
"What you are proposing, Madame Le Pen, is a reduction in French people's spending power because, by withdrawing from the euro, for savers, workers, it's a reduction in spending power," Macron told the leader of the far-right National Front (FN.)
In a snap Elabe poll, Macron was seen to have the best political program and was placed as the second most convincing performer, behind veteran leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon. Le Pen came in fourth place behind third-placed Fillon.
Candidates also discussed the "moralization" of French politics and a number of the candidates present mentioned the legal cases involving Le Pen and Fillon.
Le Pen claimed she was "politically persecuted," but as a member of the European Parliament, "I have parliamentary immunity."
Fillon said he was "entitled to the presumption of innocence." He added: "I didn't acknowledge errors. ... I'm still here and nobody will intimidate me. The French will make a judgment in a little less than three weeks."
France's first debate on March 20 was followed by more than 10 million French citizens. A third debate is scheduled for April 20, three days before the first round of the election to be held on the Sunday.
Macron and Le Pen remain the top contenders.
"I want to recover the optimism of the French," 39-year-old Macron said, asserting that entrepreneurs and businesses are job creators. "We must invest to get the machine going again."
The 48-year-old Le Pen said the answer lies in "economic patriotism", vowing to fight "out-of-control globalization" with an anti-EU agenda.
Fillon, once a frontrunner, has struggled over allegations that his wife, son and daughter benefitted from public monies for minimal work. The conservative candidate has denied any wrongdoing. During the debate Fillon called for the "largest possible global alliance, including Russia, to combat Islamist totalitarianism."
Macron and Le Pen are tied at 25 percent in the April 23 first round of the election, although Macron would go on to beat Le Pen in the second round two weeks later, a Le Monde/Cevipof opinion poll and a separate Ifop poll showed on Tuesday ahead of the debate.
An Ifop-Fiducial survey on Tuesday put Macron at 60.5 percent in the second and final round over Le Pen, who is expected to fetch around 40 percent of the vote.
Voter certainty had risen sharply, with 64 percent of those surveyed now sure of their decision - up five percent on previous samplings.
That Cevipof poll saw Fillon getting 17.5 percent of first-round votes and Melenchon 15 percent, ahead of Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon on 10 percent.
Le Pen's campaign director scrutinized
Also fresh under public gaze was Len Pen's campaign director David Rachline.
Tuesday's edition of the "Canard Enchaine" satirical newspaper reported that the prosecutor in Lille was examining payroll payments from the Lille-based regional council while Rachline remained an elected councilor in Provence in southern France.
Rachline replied that the probe bore the hallmark of a "political attack."
In February, French judicial police had questioned Le Pen's bodyguard and chief of staff in connection with a probe into alleged misuse of European Union funds for parliamentary assistants.
ipj/jm(Reuters, AP, AFP)