French Presidential election: Emmanuel Macron cements place as frontrunner after fiery debate

"What you are proposing, Ms. Le Pen, is a reduction in French people's purchasing power, because for savers and for workers, withdrawing from the euro will be a reduction in spending power", he said. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen expressed support for a "clever" protectionism.

Polls now suggest independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, far-right leader of the National Front, would dominate the April 23 first round and Macron could win the May 7 runoff.

Hitting back, Le Pen said "you shouldn't pretend to be something new when you are speaking like old fogy that are at least 50 years old".

Macron then retorted: "Sorry to tell you this, Madame Le Pen, but you are saying the same lies that we've heard from your father for forty years".

Le Pen said she had "not voted for the text" in the European Parliament, but did not specify that she had only abstained.

Marine Le Pen of French National Front (FN) attends a prime-time televised debate for the candidates at French 2017 presidential election in La Plaine Saint-Denis, near Paris, France, April 4, 2017.

Macron and Le Pen are tied on 25 percent in the April 23 first round of the election, although Macron would go on to beat Le Pen in the second round, a Le Monde/Cevipof opinion poll and a separate Ifop poll showed on Tuesday ahead of the debate.

Meanwhile, nationalist right-wing outsider Francois Asselineau said he was "the only true candidate of Frexit", and promised to trigger Article 50 - the process to start the country's divorce from the European Union - immediately if he were to win power.

Turning the topic to security, Ms Le Pen said that France had become a "university for jihadists", prompting angry interruptions from the left-wing candidates.

At 5th most convincing was Socialist party candidate Benoit Hamon, with 9 percent. It featured all 11 candidates in the race.

Communist firebrand Nathalie Arthaud vowed to protect French workers from being "strangled by the capitalist system", while anti-EU nationalists such as Francois Asselineau, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Jacques Cheminade enjoyed rare airtime.

"Since January it's just been a great campaign ... the more we dig, the more corruption there is, the more cheating there is", Philippe Poutou, a fringe candidate, said.

The problem for 48-year-old Le Pen is that withdrawing from Europe's single currency is both her most distinguishing proposal and her most hard sell.

The left's divisions have favored the emergence of Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister of incumbent Socialist President Francois Hollande.

She says her priority would be to cut taxes on French small and middle-size business.

On April 23, France will hold its most unpredictable presidential elections since World War II.

It was the first time that all candidates had debated before the first round of a presidential election in France with many observers sceptical about whether the format would help inform voters.

The debate heated up when the candidates discussed the "moralization" of French politics.

  • Leroy Wright