French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has said she does not want to be president of some “vague region of the European Union” or “the vice chancellor of Ms Merkel” during a televised presidential election debate.
Five candidates, including centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron and embattled conservative Francois Fillon, took part in the three-hour live discussion, with the topics of domestic and foreign policy and the economy on the agenda.
The Front National leader used her opening pitch to voters to rail against the EU, suggesting France’s membership of the bloc meant the next French President would not be ruling an “independent” country.
“These are not just empty words when you talk about national independence,” she said. “Thousands of French people died for it.”
Mr Macron’s used his initial 90-second gambit to say he would use his experience in banking and government to remove the barriers to progress, while Mr Fillon also promised to tackle bureaucracy.
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon vowed to be an honest and fair president and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon vowed to put the environment at the heart of his presidency.
Early on, the candidates clashed over the teaching of French in schools – the first subject in the TF1 debate.
Ms Le Pen said France should stop offering lessons in the language of pupils’ mother tongue, saying it was preventing integration.
Mr Hamon branded her suggestion “disgusting” and said the issue of education was being hijacked by politicians to spread a certain message.
The candidates then discussed the issue of immigration, a key theme in this year’s presidential election.
Mr Macron proved he wouldn’t be pushed around easily, and took issue when Le Pen accused him of being in favour of Muslim swimwear in a pointed dig designed to prove he was not committed to France’s secular values.
The chart below, created for The Independent by statistics agency Statista, shows French voting intentions for the first round.
“I don’t need a ventriloquist,” he countered. “When I have something to say, I say it clearly.”
He then accused the Front National leader of using Islam as a tool to divide the French public.
“The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocations is to divide society,” Mr Macron said.
But Mr Macron also said French border security should be strengthened and called for an “effective expulsion policy” to remove people in the country illegally.
“We don’t do enough to coordinate the protection of European borders,” he said, but added that France should also be more open to asylum seekers.
Mr Fillon said he “deeply disagreed” with Mr Macron’s remarks, and said many refugees were actually fleeing poverty rather than war or persecution.
“We must close the incoming flows by using quotas set by Parliament,” he said. “This does not affect asylum seekers but all other forms of immigration.”
Mr Hamon, who does not support a quota system, said the proportion of foreigners in France had been stable since the 1930s and suggested those on the right of French politics were stirring the debate to try and win votes.
He added that global warming was a key factor that would contribute to another wave of refugees – those fleeing climate change.
And he said France should allow asylum seekers to have access to work to enable them to integrate, as refugees in Germany are allowed to do.
Mr Melenchon agreed that climate change would worsen the refugee crisis and said the focus should be on tackling the cause of the problem.
Ms Le Pen said she would put a near-total stop to immigration to France, claiming 200,000 “illegal immigrants” were arriving in France each year.
“We have to have national borders,” she said. “We can’t count on Greece to deal with the flow of migrants.”
On the topic of policing, the socialist politician Mr Hamon said he would fight against discrimination, including identity checks and stop-and-searches on ethnic monitories which he said meant a black person was seven times more likely to be searched.
Ms Le Pen said she would increase the number of officers and invest in more equipment, while Mr Fillon struck a similarly tough law and order tone with a vow to move resources from the back office to the frontline.
Mr Macron said the Government needed to restore security in urban areas, including expelling criminals from areas where they had committed offences.
Mr Melenchon said more efforts should be put into financial policing to tackle tax avoidance.
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