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French presidential election candidates (LtoR) Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, pose before a debate organised by French private TV channel TF1 in Aubervilliers
French presidential election candidates (LtoR) Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, before a debate in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, France, March 20, 2017.  Patrick Kovarik—Pool/Reuters

French Presidential Frontrunners Macron and Le Pen Clash in a Heated Debate

In a three-and-a-half-hour debate that stretched well past midnight, France's five major presidential candidates sparred testily on live television Monday, several times lashing out at each other on sharply divisive issues like immigration, extremism and religion.

The campaign, the most unpredictable French presidential race in decades, has thrown up two outsiders as the current front runners: Liberal economist Emmanuel Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen. Each are polling at around 26% going into the first-round vote on April 23, and polls suggest that Macron will beat Le Pen in the decisive second round on May 7 to become the new French president — a sign that many left- and right-wing voters might band together to stop Le Pen from taking power.

After months of tumultuous politicking that has gripped the country, Le Pen and Macron lobbed withering attacks at one another, each trying to break through their neck-and-neck race.

Read More: The 5 Candidates in the Battle Royale for French President

"I just cannot summarize what you are saying," Le Pen said to Macron near midnight in a condescending tone, as the candidates showed increasing fatigue; Macron was caught on camera rubbing his eyes. "It is empty," she told him. "Every time you speak it is a little bit of that and a little bit of that."

Macron hit back, saying, "Unlike you, I want a strong France in Europe."

The debate highlighted just how uncertain France's election is, just a month before the first vote. After generations in which France has been dominated by the Socialists and conservatives, neither party seems capable of winning.

"The whole scenario of this presidential election is completely unprecedented," Thierry Arnaud, political editor of France's BFM Television, tells TIME by phone after the debate, at around 1 a.m. local time.

Most amazing to many French, Le Pen's victory is now not implausible — a stark change from previous attempts by her party, the National Front, to win high office in France. "I think she can win," Arnaud said. "I am not saying it is likely. It is possible."

Macron, 39, is fighting his first-ever election campaign, and faced intense scrutiny throughout the debate in his first up-close comparison with far more seasoned politicians than himself.

Until recently, the assumed front runner was former Prime Minister François Fillon, but he his popularity has crashed after allegations he funneled about $1 million in public funds to family members in no-show jobs. Fillon admitted on stage he had "made mistakes."

In the vacuum Fillon's woes have left, Macron — who was briefly Economy Minister until starting his own political movement last year — is trying to use his inexperience to his advantage. "I am not a member of the political establishment," he said to those around him, as though the phrase was an insult. "I am proud of having been a banker."

Coming across as someone who has much to offer — but perhaps much to learn — Macron was judged the "most convincing" of the five candidates by a sampling of 1,157 viewers of France's BFM Television following the debate.

But Arnaud disagrees. He says he found Macron "very weak" for the first hour on stage. "He needs to do better in the next debates to reassure those who wonder if he is enough of a heavyweight to be president."

Read More: With François Fillon in the Gutter, France Can Expect a Battle of Insurgents

Up against Macron's centrist, moderate message is Le Pen's fierce, hardline views that have found wide support among voters fed up with France's tepid economy and insecurity.

In this week's TIME Magazine, voters said they supported Le Pen's National Front party because of its strong protectionism against offshoring jobs, and that they liked her fierce patriotism. "I will defend the jobs of the French people," she said on stage in the debate, citing Whirlpool Corp., which announced in January that it was shutting its French production and moving to Poland.

Arnaud says Le Pen's campaign strongly appeals to many voters. "She is running a very good campaign with a very clear and strong message," he says. "And her main opponents all have their weaknesses."

There are deep schisms between the candidates that could have a far-reaching impact: The migrant crisis, fundamentalism and the crackdown on terrorism. Many human-rights groups have criticized France's state of emergency, which has been in place since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, for unfairly targeting French Muslims.

Read More: The Power of Le Pen

"There must be respect for freedom of conscience," said far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. "You have a right to be Muslim." Le Pen pounced on that remark, saying, "We have Islamic radicalism in our country. If we turn a blind eye it is as if we do not want to see the truth."

Le Pen favors banning Muslim headscarves and yarmulkes in public, and the cover-all burkinis on French beaches — an issue that exploded into a fierce debate after the attacks in Nice last July. "A few years ago we did not have burkinis on our beaches," she said. "I know you, Monsieur Macron, are in favor of that."

With Le Pen consistently in the lead for the first-round vote, other warned that the prospect of her as president could spell disaster for Europe. Fillon said Le Pen's plan to end France's use of the euro, and to reinstate the French franc, would "draw our country into economic and social chaos."

Le Pen shot back: "Monsieur Fillon, you are fueling people's fear. That is exactly what people did to Donald Trump."

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