French election: 5 top candidates to hold first debate

Whether this helps National Front leader Marine Le Pen attract angry voters, or whether they prefer the reforms offered by conservative Francois Fillon or centrist Emmanuel Macron remains to be seen.

Macron's performance, in particular, was being closely watched.

Millions of voters are still undecided after five years of unpopular Socialist rule under Francois Hollande, marked by high unemployment, low economic growth and a spate of attacks that has killed over 230 people.

Le Pen attacked Macron saying on issues of policy that he had been indecisive calling his comments empty.

The debate, and the two others that will follow ahead of the April 23 first round, are seen as key in an election in which almost 40 percent of voters say they are not sure who to back.

Macron proved during the three-hour evening debate that overran and spilled past midnight that he can defend himself.

"I don't need a ventriloquist", he retorted. "I pledge to be controlled by no one", he said.

He accused her of using religion to divide the French.

Le Pen wants all religious symbols - including Muslim headscarves and Jewish kippahs - banned from public spaces.

Le Pen said the burkini was a sign of the "rise of radical Islam in our country" and accused Macron of supporting it.

Macron also traded barbs with Le Pen on the Islamic full-body swimsuit. After a thinly veiled dig from Le Pen suggesting that the former banker would be beholden to financial lobbies if elected, Macron told her: "You'd be bored without me".

Fillon, a one-time front-runner who has fallen back over by a scandal surrounding the employment of his wife as a parliamentary assistant, has been put under formal investigation, a first for a French presidential candidate. I have defects. Who doesn't? "I may have committed some errors, I have faults, who doesn't, but I am experienced", the Republican nominee said in response.

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.

Hamon described Le Pen's attitude as "sickening" after she described French schools as "a daily nightmare", so risky that pupils attend with "fear in their stomachs".

  • Leroy Wright