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Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, arrives for a debate organised by French private TV channel TF1 in Aubervilliers, outside Paris, France, March 20, 2017. Picture taken March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick Kovarik/Pool

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PARIS (Reuters) - A junior French minister backed Emmanuel Macron's presidential campaign on Tuesday, the first member of the government to do so, just hours after he consolidated his status as favourite in the first of a series of TV debates.

The backing of ecology party lawmaker and biodiversity minister Barbara Pompili is expected to be followed by more defections from the government of Socialist President Francois Hollande, in which centrist Macron served as economy minister until last summer.

Several ministers shun their party's leftist official candidate Benoit Hamon, who is faring poorly in the polls.

"I've decided after weighing it up seriously to back the endeavour, the programme and the candidacy of Emmanuel Macron," Pompili told France Info radio, approving of Macron's desire to promote a positive role for France in Europe and to keep far-right leader Marine Le Pen out of power.

Independent Macron, a former investment banker and one-time adviser to Hollande who has never run for elected office before, was found by an opinion poll to be the most convincing performer in a three-hour debate on Monday night watched by almost 10 million people - over a fifth of the French electorate.

During the debate among the five main candidates, he clashed on immigration and Europe with his main rival, National Front leader Le Pen, coming out well ahead of her and his other main rival, Francois Fillon, the conservative whose campaign has been dogged by financial scandal, in the poll.

The premium of France's 10-year borrowing costs over Germany's fell 4 basis points after the debate amid investor relief that Macron performed well and kept his nearest challenger, the anti-euro, anti-European Union Le Pen, at bay.

"There were some doubts whether Macron would perform well because of his relative inexperience, but the poll after the debate shows him in the lead," said DZ Bank analyst Rene Albrecht.

Opinion polls have for weeks shown Le Pen and Macron pulling away from the pack in an election full of twists and turns which is taking place against a backdrop of high unemployment and sluggish growth.

(Reporting by Andrew Callus; Editing by Brian Love and Adrian Croft)

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Reuters