French candidate Emmanuel Macron was seen as the most convincing among the top five candidates after the first televised debate of the presidential race.
Several snap polls showed Macron emerging as the “winner” of the debate during which he clashed with his main rival, Front National leader Marine Le Pen, about immigration and Burkinis.
The 39-year-old former economy minister who heads the independent party “En Marche!” appeared alongside Le Pen, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Socialist Benoit Hamon, and embattled conservative candidate François Fillon.
The relative newcomer, who has never run for public office before cemented his position as one of the most important candidates in the election after clashing against Le Pen in a debate that lasted almost three and a half hours.
Macron accused Le Pen of lying to voters and trying to divide the French public. “You are failing (voters) by twisting the truth,” Macron told Le Pen when she talked about a rise of radical Islam in France and said Macron was in favour of burkinis, a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women, which caused a lot of controversy in France last summer.
Twenty-nine per cent of viewers thought Macron was the most convincing, ahead of Mélenchon with 20 per cent, 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.
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. An accusation the former investment banker did not accept, saying he was the only candidate not funded by public money.
“I pledge to be controlled by no one,” Macron said.
Macron was relatively unknown before he introduced a series of reforms during his time as the economy minister in 2015, which chipped away at the “French social model,” of the 35-hour workweek.
“The traditional parties, those who have for decades failed to solve yesterday’s problems, won’t be able to do it tomorrow either,” Macron said during the debate.
In a poll published on Sunday, Macron was polling slightly ahead of Marine Le Pen in the first round of the elections with 26.5% to 26%, and was projected to beat Le Pen with 64% share of the votes in the second round of the elections.
French voters will go to the polls on April 23 for the first round of the elections and on May 7 for the second.
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