French PM, far-right leader, clash in EU debate

FILE PHOTO: Ceremony to mark end of WW2 anniversary in Paris
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PARIS (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and far-right party leader Jordan Bardella clashed in a TV debate on Thursday in which they presented radically different views of the European Union, ahead of the June 9 European Parliament elections.

Accusations of lying abounded in a debate that held high stakes for both sides.

The eurosceptic National Rally (RN) party of Bardella and Marine Le Pen leads opinion polls by a huge margin, with as much as 33% of the vote, or about twice as much as what is forecast for Attal, and President Emmanuel Macron's, centrist, pro-EU party.

The challenge for Attal, who stressed the benefits of the EU for French citizens, was to try and revert the polling trend.

The challenge for Bardella, whose party has often lost points in national elections, especially among older voters, because of its euroscepticism and doubts over its economic policies, was to prove its seriousness on those fronts - and to attack Attal and Macron on their track-record.

Throughout the debate, Attal aimed to show contradictions and loopholes in the RN's EU policies.

"When were you lying, now or then?", Attal said, pointing at the RN's policy changes, over the years, on issues including the euro, which it no longer wants to ditch.

"Unlike you I don't want to destroy the single market," Attal said, saying the RN's "buy France" stance would breach EU rules but also harm French businesses, as other EU countries would do the same and prioritise their own businesses.

"What he (Bardella) said on nuclear energy in nonsensical," Attal also said.

Bardella, in turn, attacked Attal on Macron's track record at home, also accusing him of backing EU policies he said harmed the interest of the French, on anything from agriculture to immigration, which he said the government has lost control of.

They also accused each other of being soft on Russia.

"You are lying, Mr Attal," Bardella said at one point.

"I recognise here the Macron camp's talent for saying everything and anything and contradict yourself," Bardella said of Attal.

(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; Editing by Daniel Wallis)