Nearly 10 million watch first election debate

Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron launched their face-off for the French presidency on Monday (20 March) in the first TV debate between the five main candidates, in which the European Union was barely discussed.

Macron boosted the view he would win France's presidency over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen who has run on an anti-euro message.

Twenty-nine percent of viewers thought Macron was the most convincing, ahead of Mélenchon with 20 percent, while Le Pen and conservative Francois Fillon were tied in third place, a snap survey conducted online by Elabe pollsters towards the end of the debate showed.

But Mr Macron said it is important that there is a "realistic" politics when it comes to migration as well as reducing the time it takes for people seeking asylum.

Le Pen was playing to her support base when she accused Macron of being "in favour" of the burkini, a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women that was banned by several coastal French towns past year.

Macron - who is running under the progressive En Marche! banner - has continued to gain support in recent weeks.

Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate of The Republicans party who has been embroiled in an expenses scandal, convinced 27 percent.

But in France, with Le Pen hoping to emulate Donald Trump's win in the United States, 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 name of Emmanuel Macron was the most typed on the search engine, with 30% of the queries.

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"That's called Project Fear, Mr Fillon".

One heated exchange was sparked when Le Pen referred to the frequent sightings of burkinis on French beaches, citing them as evidence of the "rise of radical Islam in our country".

The Socialist Party's Benoit Hamon took issue with Le Pen's claim that public schools are wracked by violence, calling her remarks "nauseating".

Supporters of Macron, who styles himself as a progressive transcending France's entrenched left-right divide, are among the most volatile while Le Pen's are the most loyal, polls show.

He resented being asked a question about political corruption and transparency, pointing out that only Fillon and Le Pen are facing formal investigations.

Hamon, the socialist candidate, suggested Macron could be influenced by people in the pharmaceutical, banking, or oil industry due to the large amounts of private donations his campaign has received. Later, she attacked Macron for being a former investment banker, then again on foreign policy, shouting over him: "What you're saying means nothing".

The debate centred on jobs, terrorism and France's place in Europe.

Candidates will await the polls in the coming days to fully know who were the real winners and losers from the TV debate.

Still with another debate to come involving all 11 candidates there is still plenty to play for and in this election race, anything could happen yet.

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