Emmanuel Macron's French presidency bid gathers pace, minister backs campaign

French presidential candidates trade barbs in first televised debateThe top five candidates in France's presidential election traded barbs in their first televised debate on Monday night.

Despite the leader of the movement En Marche was target of numerous attacks from rivals who relegated him repeatedly to defensive positions, the young politician managed to get the best results in all aspects measured by the Elabe Institute in a survey.

A French junior minister backed Emmanuel Macron's presidential campaign on Tuesday, the first government member to do so, just hours after he reinforced his status as favourite in the first of a series of TV debates.

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

The debate, and two others that will follow before the April 23 first round, are considered crucial in an election in which almost 40 per cent of voters say they are not sure who to back.

Fillon, accused of paying his wife a generous salary for work she may not have done, has been put under formal investigation, a first for a French presidential candidate.

Former economy minister Macron was most animated when he took on Le Pen over the burkini.

Known as a passionate advocate of France who wants to follow Britain out of the EU, Le Pen vowed that she will not become "the vice chancellor of Madame Merkel" or "the salesperson for a multinational group".

It has been complicated further by the increasing popularity of Macron, who has been attempting to bridge the gap between the left & right.

Only 17 percent of voters questioned in an Ipsos poll last month gave high marks to France's democratic system.

According to the poll for the BFMTV broadcaster, 29 percent of French believe Macron has been the most persuasive during the debate.

Marine Le Pen has given quite a strong performance, sticking to her regular themes of anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, about needing to restore sovereignty.

Television debates were key to Francois Fillon's victory in the center-right primaries in November and to Benoit Hamon in the Socialist primaries in January.

She also wants to increase the defence budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2018, up from about 1.78 percent now, and 3 percent by 2022.

That could play into the hands of right-wing candidates Le Pen and Fillon, who advocate tougher security measures.

Le Pen also goes into the election under a legal cloud, accused of defrauding the European Parliament of funds and illegal campaign financing.

Six other candidates now with low polling numbers were excluded from Monday's debate but are expected to take part in the next one.

A total of 11 candidates, spanning the spectrum from the Trotskyist left to the far right, are running in the election which will culminate in a second-round duel on May 7 between the two top vote-getters.

  • Leroy Wright