PARIS (AP) — France's top candidates for president advocated starkly opposing economic, European and security policies during a crucial debate Tuesday night, less than three weeks before the first round of voting.
Anger at globalization, worries about extremist violence and skepticism of the European Union were key themes in the televised debate. It featured all 11 candidates for the race — nine men, two women seated in a semi-circle facing the journalists for almost 4 hours.
Polls currently suggest independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, far-right leader of the National Front, would dominate the April 23 first round and Macron could win the May 7 runoff.
But lesser-known rivals stood out in the debate — notably far left candidates Jean-Luc Melenchon and Philippe Poutou, with their rhetoric for the working classes and jabs at the frontrunners.
Asked how they want to create jobs in a country where the unemployment rate has for years hovered around 10 percent, Macron promoted pro-free market views, in contrast with Le Pen and her support for protectionism.
Macron pledges to cut business taxes, loosen France's stringent labor rules and boost negotiations between unions and employers to help create jobs.
Le Pen — who wants France to follow Britain and exit the European Union, like several candidates — proposed a tax on businesses that hire foreign workers.
"Without a clever protectionism, we are going to watch jobs being destroyed one after another", she said.
Le Pen lobbed several punches at Macron, her chief rival.
"You do not present yourself as new when you are using 50-year-old ideas," she said to the former economy minister, who is 39 years old and running for his first elected office.
"Madame Le Pen, sorry to tell you, but you are using lies we hear for 40 years and we were hearing in your father's mouth," Macron retorted, a reference to the National Front's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who repeatedly has been convicted of crimes based on anti-Semitism and racism.
As many candidates from the left and right harshly criticized the European Union, Macron said he has the European project "in (his) heart".
The best way to improve the situation of European workers is for France to discuss with Germany and reform the EU, he said.
Security issues prompted a vigorous discussion as the country is still under state of emergency following deadly attacks in Paris in 2015.
Le Pen wants to reinstate France's national borders to prevent potential attackers from entering the country.
She pledged to boost the military budget and suggested closing a hundred mosques in the country she describes as preaching a "radical" Islam.
Macron vowed to pursue France's military operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa's Sahel region and promised to hire 10,000 police forces to help ensuring security on the country's territory.
The debate heated up when the candidates discussed the "moralization" of French politics.
Le Pen and conservative candidate Francois Fillon tried to fend off accusations of corruption by other candidates in the presidential race. They denied any wrongdoing.
Le Pen is embroiled in a set of corruption allegations, along with her anti-immigration National Front party.
She said she is "politically persecuted" and added that in any case, as a member of the European Parliament, she has "parliamentary immunity."
Fillon was given preliminary charges for allegedly giving his wife and two children government-funded jobs which they never did.
He said "I am entitled to the presumption of innocence".
"I didn't acknowledge errors. ... I'm still here and nobody will come intimidate me. The French will make a judgment in a little less than three weeks."
Fillon, once considered the favorite of the vote before corruption allegations break in French medias, is now struggling to survive in the race.