France election: Leading candidates clash over burkini in TV debate

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Francois Fillon, Emanuel Macron, Benoit Hamon, Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen before the debate

The two leading candidates in the French election have traded barbs in an occasionally fiery TV debate.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emanuel Macron clashed over the full-body “burkini” swimsuit worn by some Muslim women.

Ms Le Pen said France should oppose multiculturalism, but was accused by Mr Macron of making enemies of Muslims in the country.

Recent polls suggest Ms Le Pen will get the most votes in the first round.

But they also indicate that Mr Macron or scandal-hit centre-right candidate Francois Fillon would defeat her in a second round run off.

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In their opening remarks in the debate, Mr Macron said he would change the country’s traditional political divisiveness, while Ms Le Pen said she wanted a France that was not a “vague region” of the EU or subservient to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany and later vowed to stop all immigration.

Mr Fillon said that if elected, he would be the president of what he called the “national recovery”.

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Also appearing in the debate – the first of its kind featuring the five leading candidates – are left-wingers Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The BBC’s Paris Correspondent Lucy Williamson says Mr Macron – who is 39 and has never fought an election before – has the most to lose in the debate.

He was keen to take on Ms Le Pen, arguing that the burkini was a “public order matter” and not a challenge to France’s tradition of secularism as Ms Le Pen suggested.

Several southern French resorts banned the swimsuit last summer before France’s highest administrative court found the ban breached fundamental freedoms.

Mr Macron also appeared to take a swipe at Mr Fillon. After accusing Ms Le Pen of defamation, he said justice would prevail as it would in the case of “certain presidential candidates”.

That was an apparent reference to judicial investigation into allegations that Mr Fillon paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for parliamentary work she did not do.

Mr Fillon has denied the allegations and refused to quit the race, complaining he is the victim of a “political assassination”.

The candidates also clashed over the economy and how to tackle unemployment, which has long stood at about 10%.

Ms Le Pen – hoping to broaden her appeal – called for a “patriotic economy” and protectionist measures favouring French companies.

But Mr Fillon said her plans would cause “economic chaos”.

On the left, Mr Hamon – hoping to differentiate himself from Mr Melenchon, who wants to attract undecided voters – called for the introduction of a universal basic income, which he said was the only innovative idea in the election campaign.

Voters go to the polls on 23 April. If none of the candidates wins more than 50% of the votes, the two with the highest will go into a second round to be held on 7 May.

France election: Leading candidates clash over burkini in TV debate