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1ST LEAD French presidential candidates clash on immigration, secularism By Pol O Gradaigh, dpa

By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Paris (dpa) - The first debate of the French presidential campaign saw sparks fly between far right leader Marine Le Pen and her left-wing and centrist rivals on hot-button topics of immigration and secularism.

Centrist hopeful Emmanuel Macron accused Le Pen of "dividing the French people" when she called for France‘s ban on Islamic headscarves to be extended to all public places.

Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon sarcastically asked if she was also going to ban people from "wearing long or short skirts" for religious reasons.

The National Front leader called for an outright halt to "legal and illegal immigration," in contrast to socialist Benoit Hamon who argued that immigration to France had been "stable since the 1930s yet every year there is a debate about it."

Hamon also hit out at Le Pen‘s hardline law and order proposals, accusing her of being "addicted to crime reports."

Le Pen and Macron, who according to opinion polls are likely to face each other in May‘s decisive run-off vote after a first round on April 23, sparred repeatedly throughout the debate.

The leader of the far-right National Front suggested that "some here" were involved in a "revolving door" between business and the public service for graduates of elite schools and as a result political decisions were favouring big firms.

"That one‘s for me again!" exclaimed Macron, a graduate of France‘s top administrative school who worked for several years at the Rothschild merchant bank before serving as economy minister under socialist President Francois Hollande.

If Le Pen had any evidence of wrongdoing, she should bring it to the police "and the justice system will do its work, as with several other candidates," he retorted in a pointed reference to the legal woes of both Le Pen and conservative Francois Fillon.

Le Pen recently defied two summons from police and judges, who wanted to question her about allegations that she wrongly claimed salary payments from the European Parliament for aides who were actually working for her National Front party.

But it was Melenchon, placed fifth in the polls, who had the best lines and, according to newspaper Le Figaro, was most mentioned on Twitter during the debate. 

He mockingly complimented presenter Anne-Claire Coudray on her "gazelle-like innocence" in referring to candidates‘ legal troubles without naming those concerned.

"There are two of us here who are polluted... Don‘t tar us all with the same brush!" he added.

Fillon, lying in third place in the polls after he was hit by a judicial investigation into claims he gave his wife a lucrative fake job paid from public funds as his parliamentary aide, stayed largely aloof from the cut and thrust.

He was "keeping himself at a distance.... in order to gain a presidential stature," journalist Alexandre Lemarie of the Le Monde newspaper wrote on Twitter.

Instead the conservative candidate focussed on economic issues, pushing his argument for an austerity policy and also choosing that field, more than two hours into the debate, to finally engage with Le Pen.

Her policy of leaving the euro risked leading France into chaos, he argued. That led the National Front leader to accuse him of trying to scare voters. 

At the close, Fillon appealed to voters to consider his experience and argued that he was the only candidate capable of rallying a parliamentary majority behind his programme.

Le Pen chose instead to hammer home her opposition to Brussels, arguing that EU rules would prevent her rivals from implementing their policies if they were elected.

Macron, last to speak, once more sought to bridge the left-right gap, saying he was offering the French people "a plan to protect you without dividing you."


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