Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, attends a meeting in Reims
By Ingrid Melander and Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - The top candidates in France's presidential election clashed in a televised debate on Monday, with centrist Emmanuel Macron accusing far-right leader Marine Le Pen of lying and seeking to divide the French.
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 a French election where nearly 40 percent of voters say they are not sure who to back.
Opinion polls show Macron and Le Pen pulling away from the pack in an election that has been full of twists and turns, and which is taking place against a backdrop of high unemployment and sluggish growth.
One of the most heated exchanges came between the two frontrunners, after Le Pen accused Macron of being in favour of the burkini, a full-body swimsuit worn by Muslim women that created weeks of controversy in France last summer.
"You are lying (to voters) by twisting the truth," retorted Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande who is running as an independent.
The debate on TF1 television grew testy when the candidates were asked about migration and Islam.
"I want to put an end to immigration, that's clear," Le Pen said, before talking about a rise of Islamist fundamentalism in France and saying the security situation in France was "explosive".
After the surprise of Britain's Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, markets are nervous about the possibility of a Le Pen victory. She is pledging to take France out of the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership.
While polls show Macron and Le Pen establishing a clear lead in the first round, conservative candidate Francois Fillon, the one-time front-runner, has fallen back, damaged by a scandal surrounding the employment of his wife as a parliamentary assistant.
Only the top two candidates go through to the runoff, where polls show Macron easily beating Le Pen.
But with so many voters undecided and polls showing the abstention rate could be higher than ever in France, the level of uncertainty remains high. A high abstention rate could benefit Le Pen as polls consistently show that her supporters are the most certain of their vote.
Fillon, accused of paying his wife a generous salary for work she may not have done, has been put under formal investigation, a first for a French presidential candidate.
But the scandal, which has dominated the campaign for weeks, occupied relatively little time in the debate, with only firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon going after Fillon and Le Pen, herself the target of several judicial probes.
Macron, a former investment banker who has never run for elected office and did not start his campaign with a war chest, came under criticism for private donations made to his campaign.
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon suggested he could fall under the influence of lobbies in the pharmaceutical, banking or oil industry.
Macron retorted that he was the only candidate who was not funded by public money. "I pledge to be controlled by no one," he said.
"The traditional parties, those who have for decades failed to solve yesterday's problems, won't be able to do it tomorrow either," said Macron, who made a name for himself by criticising sacred cows of the French "social model" such as the 35-hour workweek, iron-clad job protections and jobs for life for civil servants.
Le Pen stressed her opposition to the European Union, saying she did not want to see France become a "vague region" of the bloc. "I don't want to be the vice chancellor of Angela Merkel," she said, referring to the German leader.
She later held up a chart showing how Germany had outdistanced France economically since the introduction of the euro currency.
The TV debate was the top trending topic on Twitter in France on Monday before it even started. Television debates were key to Fillon's victory in the centre-right primaries in November and to Benoit Hamon in the Socialist primaries in January.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Noah Barkin)