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AAA  Mar. 20, 2017 5:47 PM ET
French election: Top candidates trade barbs in first debate
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From left to right, Conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon, Independent centrist presidential candidate for the presidential election Emmanuel Macron, Far-left presidential candidate for the presidential election Jean-Luc Melenchon, Far-right presidential candidate for the presidential election Marine Le Pen and Socialist candidate for the presidential election Benoit Hamon pose for a group photo prior to a television debate at French TV station TF1 in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, France, Monday, March 20, 2017. The five leading candidates for France's presidential election are holding their first debate Monday, with centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen leading polls and jobs and security among voters' top concerns. (Patrick Kovarik/Pool Photo via AP)
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(AP) — The leading candidates for France's presidential election traded barbs in their first televised debate Monday, with National Front leader Marine Le Pen the target of initial attacks.

Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, both looking to boost their poll numbers, were the first to take swipes at Le Pen.

Hamon described Le Pen's attitude as "sickening" after she described French schools as "a daily nightmare," so dangerous that pupils attend with "fear in their stomachs."

Melenchon interrupted Le Pen as she was calling for boosted French-language teaching.

"How do you learn French, dear madam? By speaking it!" he said.

Some of the sharpest exchanges were about the place of religion in France.

Le Pen wants all religious symbols — including Muslim headscarves and Jewish kippahs — banned from public spaces.

Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist leading polls with Le Pen, reacted heatedly when she accused him of being in favor of Muslim swimwear.

"I don't need a ventriloquist," he retorted.

He accused her of using religion to divide the French.

Conservative Francois Fillon was notably restrained. His campaign has been hurt by accusations that his wife and children were paid with public money for jobs they allegedly did not do.

The televised evening debate involved the five candidates who are expected to be the largest vote-getters in the first round of the two-round vote.

The list of 11 candidates was finalized Saturday. The first round is set for April 23; the top two candidates go to a runoff May 7.

Associated Press
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