OTTAWA — The politically charged subject of minority and women’s rights created unusual on-stage alliances — and one of the most heated exhanges of the campaign — during the first French-language debate of the federal election.

Health care, the right to die with dignity, the Senate and the economy also came up Thursday during the first half of the debate, hosted by Radio-Canada in Montreal.

But the question of whether Muslim women who wear the face-covering niqab should be required to show their face while taking the citizenship oath was one of the most widely anticipated discussion points.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and the Bloc Quebecois’ Gilles Duceppe had both run pointed television ads expressing the controversial position that women who wear the veil should be made to remove it during the ceremony.

“We’re talking about fundamental question, it’s the question of equality between men and women in our society,” said Duceppe, who promised the Bloc’s first bill in the Commons would be extend a ban on the veil to other areas, such as public servants.

Although NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are going head to head for seats in Quebec, they wound up on the same page on the issue — they didn’t think a woman should be told how to dress.

“I understand it’s a question that makes many people uneasy, but for me, the state is there to defend minority rights, and to defend the rights of women,” Trudeau said.

That led to a tense moment during the debate that featured Harper and Mulcair facing each other directly, talking loudly over each other.

“Mr. Mulcair, I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she is woman. That’s not our Canada, that’s not acceptable for me,” Harper said.

“Attack the oppressor, don’t attack the woman, Mr. Harper … have the courage to do that,” Mulcair said. “But it’s not by depriving these women of their citizenship and their rights that you’re going to succeed in helping them.

“You’re playing a dangerous political game.”

Green party Leader Elizabeth May called the issue a “fake debate” that has nothing to do with important questions on climate change, unemployment and the economy.

“For women’s rights, where is the inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women?” she asked.

Other lively moments came during a discussion on constitutional issues, where Trudeau challenged Mulcair’s position that a simple majority in a referendum would be enough for Quebec to separate from Canada.

“Mr. Trudeau says it will take much more than simple majority, but he refuses to say how much,” Mulcair said.

Trudeau said Mulcair’s own party constitution would require more than just 50 per cent-plus-one of voters to remove “new” from the name of the New Democratic Party.

“A prime minister should fight for the unity of the country, and it won’t surprise anyone that’s what I intend to do,” said Trudeau.

This first French-language debate could be key for Trudeau and Mulcair in particular.

The Conservatives managed to win a majority government in 2011 with only five seats from the province, as they cleaned up in Ontario and held on in their western strongholds.

But for the math to work for Trudeau, his campaign needs to tick off a healthy number of ridings in Quebec on election night.

The stakes are arguably even higher for Mulcair, whose base of support is firmly rooted in the province. In 2011, the NDP vaulted into official opposition status when they swept the province under Jack Layton. The NDP held 54 of the 75 seats in Quebec when Parliament was dissolved.

Three different pollsters suggested Thursday that New Democrat support may be beginning to wane. The party is not yet a force in the critical Greater Toronto Area.

“Overall, it’s fragile,” pollster Jean-Marc Leger said of NDP support. “It’s really fragile in Quebec.”

The leaders’ debate is the third of the campaign but the first to be nationally televised by the major networks. It is also the first to include five party leaders, adding May of the Greens and the Bloc’s Duceppe to the mix.

It also marks the beginning of an intense nine-day period that will see three leaders’ debates in all, two in French and one predominantly in English.

Follow @jenditchburn on Twitter.

Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press

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