PARIS: The two contenders for the French presidency traded insults in a fiery head to head TV debate, in a key moment of a long and bitter campaign.
Centrist Emmanuel Macron said his far-right rival Marine Le Pen’s strategy “is to lie”, while she called him a shameless “darling of the system”.
Mr Macron is well ahead in the polls, although his lead has been reduced.
The aim of both candidates is to win over the estimated 18% of undecided voters ahead of Sunday’s election.
For the first time, neither candidate is from a mainstream French party.
The debate was heated for most of its 160 minutes, with both candidates throwing personal insults at each other.
Ms Le Pen called her 39-year-old rival “the candidate of savage globalisation”, happy to sell off France’s assets and relinquish control of the country.
Mr Macron, in turn, accused the 48-year-old leader of the National Front (FN) of being “the high priestess of fear”, saying she talked a lot but “proposed nothing”.
What about the issues?
On the economy and employment: Mr Macron admitted France had failed to tackle unemployment for 30 years, and said his solution would be to give small and medium-sized companies the opportunities to create more jobs and be more flexible.
Ms Le Pen asked him why he could not have done these things while economy minister.
She said she would protect state assets and French jobs by adopting protectionist trade measures.
On terrorism: Ms Le Pen accused her rival of being complacent about Islamic fundamentalism, while he said her plans played into the hands of terrorists and their desire for a “civil war”.
Mr Macron said he would strengthen security measures already taken but insisted France needed to work with other countries, and closing borders and general expulsions were not the answer.
The FN leader said Islamic fundamentalism needed to be “eradicated”, and that meant shutting down extremist mosques, expelling preachers of hate and target funding from countries such as “Qatar and Saudia Arabia”.
On the EU and currency: Ms Le Pen said she wants not only full control of borders and trade agreements but also a “return to our national currency, it’s key”.
She said banks and large companies could have a choice as to whether they paid in euros or a French currency, but individuals would return to a French currency.
Mr Macron called the proposal “nonsense”. “How can a big company pay in euros on one hand and pay its employees in another currency?” he asked.
On education: Mr Macron said he would focus on improving standards in primary schools, and said he wanted to see closer links with business. Ms Le Pen said she wanted to see more vocational teaching, university criteria based on merit and more secularism in schools.
This has got to go down as one of the great debates. The ones that people remember.
From Marine Le Pen, the aggression of the demagogue, the venom, the constant niggling remarks designed to get under her adversary’s skin.
And from Emmanuel Macron, the Cartesian rationality of the brilliant French technocrat.
There is not the slightest point of similarity between these two leaders. They are diametrical opposites. Their personalities clash; their politics clash; they loathe each other.
It is a great service they are providing in this debate, because they are laying bare in all its stark newness the great division of our times: not between left and right, but between the nation and the world.
It is a debate which echoes far beyond the borders of France, which is why this fiery confrontation will go down in the annals. -BBC