France's Le Pen under fire in first presidential TV debate
(AFP) Marine Le Pen's proposal to pull France out of the euro and her hardline stance on Islam came under attack from her fellow presidential hopefuls Monday, in a combative TV debate a month before the country goes to the polls.
France's election is shaping up as the most unpredictable in decades, with far-right National Front (FN) leader Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron tied in polls for the April 23 first round, while the mainstream left and right languish in third and fourth place.
With polls showing Macron, 39, would easily beat the anti-immigration Le Pen, 48, in a decisive run-off vote on May 7, he had been expected to take the most heat in Monday's TV battle.
But it was Le Pen who was repeatedly thrust onto the defensive as Macron, conservative nominee Francois Fillon, the Socialist Party's Benoit Hamon and fifth-placed leftist radical Jean-Luc Melenchon all tore into her programme.
Former frontrunner Fillon, 63, who has been ensnared in a raft of scandals, said Le Pen's proposal to ditch the euro and bring back the French franc would cause "economic and social chaos."
"You don't leave the euro and the protection afforded by the European Central Bank...for an adventure... that would ruin borrowers and savers alike," Fillon, who presented himself as the most experienced pair of hands, scolded.
Le Pen, who has been buoyed by Donald Trump's election in the US and Britain's decision to leave the EU, accused Fillon of scaremongering.
"That's called Project Fear, Mr Fillon. It was used before Brexit," said Le Pen, who has pledged a similar referendum on France's EU membership, said.
Setting out her vision of a France which defends its interests "without being lectured by a supranational body", Le Pen, who has accused Germany of dictating to the rest of Europe, said: "I have no desire to be Mrs Merkel's deputy".
Former economy minister Macron, the most europhile of the candidates, noted that "all those who said Brexit will be wonderful...ran away and hid."
Le Pen cast the former Rothschild banker Macron -- who has campaigned as "neither of the left or the right" -- as trying to be all things to all voters.
"You never come down on one side or the other," she accused.
Macron also traded barbs with Le Pen on the Islamic full-body swimsuit.
The so-called burkini was at the centre of a furore in France last summer after several coastal towns banned the garment.
Le Pen said the burkini was a sign of the "rise of radical Islam in our country" and accused Macron of supporting it.
"The burkini is a public order problem. Do not use it to divide the French," former economy minister Macron retorted, accused her of transforming "the over four million French people, whose religion is Islam...into enemies of the Republic".
Hamon, for his part, took issue with Le Pen's claim that public schools are wracked by violence, calling her remarks "nauseating".
A total of 11 candidates, spanning the spectrum from the Trotskyist left to the far right, are running for president.
Six smaller candidates were excluded from Monday's debate.
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.
Fillon had been hoping for a boost Monday after taking a battering over revelations that his wife was paid hundreds of thousands of euros for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant and allegations that he accepted luxury suits from a rich benefactor.
Le Pen also goes into the election under a legal cloud, accused of defrauding the European Parliament of funds and illegal campaign financing.
Communist-backed candidate Melenchon appealed to voters to "reward the virtuous".
Turnout a key factor
The election could hinge on turnout.
Polls show that only around 65 percent of voters are planning to vote in the first round in what would be a record low. The surveys also show voters being unusually fickle.
Supporters of Macron, who styles himself as a progressive, are among the most likely to switch camp while Le Pen's are seen as the most loyal.
The trained lawyer has worked hard to purge the National Front of the anti-Semitism and overt racism bequeathed by her father.
Jean-Marie Le Pen sent tremors through France in 2002 by beating the Socialists to a place in the presidential run-off against conservative Jacques Chirac.
In the run-off voters rallied en masse behind Chirac.