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French PM refuses to 'promise the moon', clashes with far-right in debate

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By Michel Rose

PARIS, June 25 (Reuters) -French prime minister Gabriel Attal accused his far-right and leftwing political opponents of "promising the moon" in a three-way televised debate on Tuesday ahead of next Sunday's first round of early parliamentary elections.

In a muddled, confusing TV debate between leaders of the three top-polling blocs, Attal came under pressure from his far-right opponent, Jordan Bardella, who repeatedly interrupted him and accused him of "lecturing" and lacking credibility.

"The difference between my competitors and me is that, as prime minister, I don't want to lie to the French. I don't want to promise them the moon," Attal said in the 90 minute debate that produced no major policy announcements.

Opinion polls show the far-right National Rally (RN) winning the two-round election on June 30 and July 7, but without an absolute majority, potentially sharing power with centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who surprised the country by calling snap elections earlier this month.

Bardella, who cast himself as a potential "purchasing power prime minister", started the debate by producing the picture of an electricity bill he said was making millions of people anxious, reiterating his pledge to cut VAT on power and fuel.

He and Attal traded barbs over the flagship cost-of-living proposal, with the prime minister repeatedly asking him to explain how he would fund a measure he said would cost significantly more than Bardella's 12 billion euros estimate.

But Bardella shot back, saying Attal, who is leading the campaign for Macron's camp, had zero credibility on public finances.

"I'm hearing you, Mr Attal, lecturing us on budget discipline, despite the fact you now have the biggest debt in the euro zone and you have created a public deficit of 5.4%," he said, adding France was now in a state of "near bankruptcy".

But Bardella, the 28-year-old who led Marine Le Pen's successful campaign for the European parliament election earlier this month, also came under fire.

The candidate for the left-wing New Popular Front alliance, Manuel Bompard, accused him of watering down and dropping costly populist measures now that he was getting closer to potentially taking power.

"The truth is that little by little, he has abandoned, over the past 10 days, all the cost-of-living measures in his manifesto," he said.

Bardella, who has promised to cut the minimum pension age to 60 for those who started work before 20, was also pushed to clarify what he would do for someone whose career started at 24.

He said that person could retire at 66, the first time he had mentioned such an old age, causing much reaction on social media.

Bardella's proposal of exempting the under-30 of income tax was also mocked by Attal, who said it made no sense to exempt rich young professionals, such as one of France's leading soccer stars, who was signed up by top Spanish club Real Madrid this month.

"Kylian Mbappé was wrong to go to Madrid, he should have stayed here, since with you he would have stopped paying taxes," Attal said.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by David Gregorio


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