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Future of Europe at heart of French presidential debate

France's position in the European Union was a major theme in an April 4 TV debate between the 11 candidates in the upcoming French presidential elections, with some calling for a straight-out "Frexit," while others underlined the economic importance of the EU to the country.

France goes to the polls on April 23 for the first round of the election, the result of which has proven hard to predict due to a series of financial scandals and the emergence of new political movements, such as the centrist En Marche!, created last year by former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. He is currently neck and neck with far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the polls for the expected run-off that would take place May 7 if no clear winner has emerged from the first round.

'Economic war'

In a four-hour debate during which the world of high finance was also berated, several candidates, ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left, blamed Europe for France's economic problems, while Macron noted the need for France to remain close to its European roots.

"I have Europe at heart because I think it makes us stronger," he said. "I am for reform, but with constructive dialogue."

Macron, who was attacked several times because of his position as a former Rothschild banker, hit back against proposals by Le Pen, who favors holding a referendum on France's EU membership if she wins the presidency and wants to take France out of the euro.

"What you are proposing, Madame Le Pen, is the reduction of French people's purchasing power," he said, adding: "What you are proposing is economic war."

Le Pen said she was in favor of protecting France against free trade, citing other thriving nations that have trade tariffs in place.

"Switzerland has agricultural tariffs of almost 55%, South Korea 41%, and these countries are doing very well; much better than us," she said.

Yet the most extreme anti-EU view during the debate was that of François Asselineau, the candidate of the right-wing Union Populaire Républicaine, who said that if elected president, he would immediately trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start negotiations to take France out of the EU. Meanwhile, Jacques Cheminade, of the right-wing Solidarité et Progrès, called for France to pull out of the EU and NATO to create a new Europe that would work with economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China to restart growth.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon said he was in favor of exiting European treaties but noted the importance of France's European partners. "We have to talk with others — the Germans are not our enemies, they are partners," he said.

Mélenchon, who has been rising recently in the polls, impressed themost viewers during the debate, with 25% saying he was the most convincing candidate, according to a poll by Elabe for BMFTV immediately after the debate. Macron came second, with 21%, while center-right candidate François Fillon was third, with 15%, and Le Pen fourth, with 11%. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, who said he was in favor of ending austerity in Europe, was favored by 9% of viewers.

International currency

Fillon was previously the front-runner in the race for the Elysée Palace, where the French president resides, but has been trailing in the polls since late January due to allegations that he paid his wife and two of his children generous salaries as his assistants for work they may not have done. He called on the EU to loosen up regulation and concentrate on "a few strategic objectives" to combat the dominance of the dollar on international financial markets and the rising influence of China in the global economy.

"We must build a European currency that will in the end become an international currency — a currency that can break with the dollar's domination on one side and the future domination of the Chinese currency," he said, adding that eurozone countries needed to harmonize their tax laws.

"It is an absolute priority to ensure the sovereignty of Europe and to defend our national independence."

Philippe Poutou of the anti-capitalist party Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste called for the creation of a state-run bank on a European level to fight tax fraud.