France's Le Pen under fire in first presidential debate

The debate, the first between the five main contenders ahead of a two-round election on April 23 and May 7, could help viewers make up their minds in an election where almost 40 percent of voters say they are not sure who to back.

Meanwhile 63-year-old Fillon has sent his conservative Republicans party into a tailspin with a raft of scandals that have landed him in the dock for misuse of public funds.

With polls showing Macron, 39, would easily beat the anti-immigration Le Pen, 48, in a decisive run-off vote on May 7, he had been expected to take the most heat in Monday's TV battle.

Former frontrunner Fillon, 63 said Le Pen's proposal to ditch the euro and bring back the French franc would cause "economic and social chaos". Among her foreign policy objectives Le Pen has called for closer cooperation in Syria with President Bashar al-Assad and a rapprochement with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

One heated exchange was sparked when Le Pen referred to the frequent sightings of burkinis on French beaches, citing them as evidence of the "rise of radical Islam in our country".

But Mr Macron said it is important that there is a "realistic" politics when it comes to migration as well as reducing the time it takes for people seeking asylum.

More news: South Korean court upholds President Park's impeachment, removing her from office

"You never come down on one side or the other", she accused. This broadcaster also cited opinion polls that show Le Pen was poised to win the first round, but that Macron would win the presidency in the runoff.

The timing of the debate, a month before French voters head to polls for the first round of the elections, provided candidates with a ideal opportunity to swing public sentiment in their favor. He really needed to do well in this debate, trying to revive this campaign after weeks of legal woes and allegations.

"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", Fillon said in a slap at his centrist rival.

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 have of course discussed the cooperation between France and Chad in the fight against terrorism", the National Front party candidate said after the meeting with Deby in Am-Djarass, near the borders with Libya and Sudan. Six smaller candidates were excluded from Monday's debate.

  • Adam Floyd