Marine Le Pen accuses rivals of promoting 'project fear' as Brexit looms large in presidential debate

Henry Samuel
Marine Le Pen was accused of being a

Marine Le Pen accused her main rivals in France's presidential race of promoting "project fear" over her plans to leave the European Union and the euro in an unprecedented televised debate on Monday night.

Brexit was the focal point of one of the most violent clashes in the three-hour debate - the first of three before the first round of voting on April 23 - in which the five main candidates finally started discussing policy in a campaign dogged by sleaze allegations.

In one of a series of heated exchanges, conservative nominee François Fillon accused Ms Le Pen of being a "serial killer" of the French economy in her plan to exit the euro, restore the franc, and to hold a referendum on leaving the EU. 

"You are dragging the country towards veritable economic and social chaos, which would lead to the ruin of both borrowers and savers," he said.

Polls suggest that almost three quarters of the French are against Ms Le Pen’s plan to replace the euro with the franc, with many fearing it could spark a bank run if she was elected.

Candidates from left to right: Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon  Credit: AP

Ms Le Pen, who, according to polls, will reach the final round of the election only to be trounced by independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, hit back: "That's called project fear."

"They used the same argument before the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump," she said.

Mr Macron, 39, an ex-banker and former economy minister who has never held elected office, chimed in, saying: "Those who were responsible for Brexit, who said everything is possible and it will be wonderful have all scampered off. They have all gone into hiding."

He predicted that Britain would suffer from leaving the EU

"We're going to start seeing the results (of their departure). Because it's other Conservatives who are going to have to deal with it, and by the way we're going to have to be incredibly rigorous (in negotiating with Britain about its exit by not giving them any undue concessions)," he said.

Ms Le Pen told him to "be a good sport".

"The results in Britain are wonderful. They have unemployment that is lower than it's been for decades."

“But they have not left yet,” Mr Fillon said. “They are right in the middle of it.” 

The pair also clashed on secularism, when Ms Le Pen claimed Mr Macron was in favour of the burkini, the body-covering Islamic garment that was recently the subject of controversy on French beaches.

"I don't need a ventriloquist," he shot back. "You are lying (to voters) by twisting the truth."

Emmanuel Macron, left, greets Francois Fillon ahead of the televised debate Credit: AP

Migration and Islam were also flash points. "I want to put an end to legal and illegal immigration," said Ms Le Pen said, linking it to Islamic fundamentalism and an "explosive" security situation in France.

The debate, which also included Socialist hopeful Benoît Hamon and leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, covered a wide range of topics, including the economy and foreign policy.  Another six minor candidates were not invited to speak on private channel TF1, to their fury, having to make do with a parallel internet debate.

The consensus was that Mr Macron, who pledges to modernise France with a "neither Left nor Right" approach, had the most to lose.

While favourite, polls suggest millions of French voters remain unsure the former banker's hands are safe enough to take on what is often dubbed the most powerful job, constitutionally speaking, in the Western world.

A snap poll after the debate by the BFMTV channel showed that 29 per cent of viewers thought that Mr Macron had won, with Mr Mélenchon in second with 20 per cent, Ms Le Pen and Mr Fillon on 19 per cent and Mr Hamon on 11 per cent.

French presidential election polling

Ms Le Pen hopes the debates will break the glass ceiling in polls currently predicting she stands virtually no chance of clinching the presidency.

A Kantar Sofres-Onepoint poll out on Monday put Ms Le Pen level pegging with Mr Macron on 26 per cent in round one, but with him then trouncing her in the run-off on around 60 per cent. However, with half of French voters saying they are still undecided and a third currently intending to abstain, the stakes are high and on-air slips could radically change the pecking order.

Once favourite but now trailing on 17 per cent, Mr Fillon, 63, is desperate to turn the page on the disclosure that he used almost €1  million (£870,000) of taxpayers’ money to employ his wife and children, and suspicions he broke rules on donations by accepting a gift of two suits worth a total of €13,000.

Profile | Marine Le Pen

He notably hit out at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying her management of the migration crisis had caused huge problems for Europe.

"I completely disagree with Emmanuel Macron who praised the German chancellor when he was in Berlin for (refugee) policies that turned out to be bad policies and which are now criticised by her own allies in Germany," said Mr Fillon.

"The way this crisis was handled has created an enormous problem for Europe," Mr Fillon added.

On the defensive over sleaze, the Les Républicains candidate insisted his radical plans to slash spending and public sector jobs would save France from ruin.

“I will be the president of national recovery. I will free the French from bureaucracy, from an excess of rules that stop them realising their dreams and block them in their lives. I will put them in place to become the first power in European within 10 years,” he said.

How the French presidential election works

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