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Election 2015: Opponents accuse Harper of using niqab debate as a distraction

WATCH ABOVE: Federal party leaders argue of niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremony.

MONTREAL – Stephen Harper came under attack from three of his main election rivals during Thursday night’s French leaders’ debate, fending off accusations that he’s using the niqab debate to distract from his record.

The federal government is fighting a Federal Court ruling that threw out its ban on the wearing of face coverings during citizenship ceremonies. When new citizens “join the Canadian family,” they should not hide their identities, Harper said.

It’s a controversial issue in many parts of the country, but it plays well in Quebec, where the NDP’s so-called orange wave washed away half of the Conservative party’s seats in the 2011 election.

READ MORE: Follow the French-language leaders’ debate live

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Green party Leader Elizabeth May said Harper is using the issue to distract from government spending cuts and manufacturing job losses under his watch.

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“What is the impact of the niqab on the economy?” said May, whose appearance alongside Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe marked the first time all five national leaders faced each together during the campaign.

“It’s a false debate for distraction purposes and for avoiding debate on real challenges for Canada.”

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The free-for-all sections of the debate often devolved into all five leaders talking simultaneously, but the debate over the niqab question was particularly emotional and heated.

VIDEO GALLERY:

“Never, never will I say to my daughter that a woman has to cover her face because she’s a woman,” said Harper, trying to position the debate over the niqab at citizenship ceremonies as one of gender equality.

“This is Canada…It’s unacceptable.”

A taxpayer-funded poll suggests Harper’s position is a popular one, particularly in Quebec, where 93 per cent of respondents supported the requirement that people show their face during Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

The Privy Council poll was conducted in March, but was released Thursday because of federal law requiring final reports such surveys to be published within six months.

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The Conservatives released a French ad this week with Harper sitting around a table, telling a few assembled people that Quebec values are Conservative priorities: reducing taxes, good jobs, a good future for their kids, a comfortable retirement – and new citizens who take the oath with an uncovered face.

READ MORE: Mulcair backs requirement that women show faces at citizenship ceremonies

Many pundits predicted the leaders would be hammering Mulcair, who stands to lose the most in Quebec, but the early sections of the debate saw the other leaders often going after Harper.

He was criticized for reducing the rate of increases in health transfers to the provinces, as well as for not taking quicker action to create a new assisted-death law after a Supreme Court ruling early this year.

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