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Friday 23 February 2018

French presidential race enters final week with May Day rallies

Supporters of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen arrive at a campaign meeting (AP)
Supporters of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen arrive at a campaign meeting (AP)

With just six days until a French presidential run-off which could define Europe's future, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron have held high-stakes rallies which overlapped with May Day marches.

Ms Le Pen was endorsed by her father, while Mr Macron held an emotional meeting with a Moroccan man whose father died years ago when he was thrown off a Paris bridge by far-right skinheads.

France votes for a new president on Sunday in a ballot being watched closely by financial markets and France's neighbours as a test of the global populist wave.

One May Day march in Paris was disrupted as scores of hooded youths threw firebombs at riot police in full gear, who responded with tear gas and truncheons. One policeman was seen spraying a troublemaker in the face.

Two police officers were reported injured, according to French television.

The violent protesters were not carrying union paraphernalia or anything linked to the French electoral campaign, appearing to be from fringe groups which have targeted anti-government protests in the past.

Workers in the march aimed to block Ms Le Pen from getting into power, but disagreed on the method. Some urged French workers to vote for Mr Macron but others refused to make that call, including far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who was eliminated in the first-round vote on April 23.

Ms Le Pen was praised by her 88-year-old father Jean-Marie, the co-founder of her National Front party whom she expelled in 2015 after he reiterated anti-Semitic comments.

In a speech before the gilded statue in Paris of Joan of Arc, his heroine, Jean-Marie Le Pen urged French voters to back his daughter in Sunday's run-off.

He said: "She is not Joan of Arc but she accepts the same mission ... France."

He denounced Macron as a "masked Socialist" backed by the highly unpopular Socialist president Francois Hollande.

"He wants to dynamise the economy, but he is among those who dynamited it," the elderly Mr Le Pen said, referring to France's stagnant economy and its unemployment rate of around 10%. Mr Macron once served as Mr Hollande's economy minister.

Marine Le Pen, speaking in a hall north of Paris, also skewered Mr Macron, a former investment banker, calling him a "puppet" of the world of finance and Islamic fundamentalists.

Anti-immigrant chants rose in the crowd of thousands for Ms Le Pen's rally.

Ms Le Pen, who hopes to mimic Donald Trump's populist electoral victory, compared Mr Macron to Hillary Clinton. She also sought to puncture Macron's argument that he represents change, calling him Mr Hollande's lapdog, the candidate of "the caviar left".

She also claimed that his pro-business policies would not create jobs but send them abroad and leave French workers hungry.

Mr Macron, seeking to remind voters of the National Front's dark past, paid homage to a Moroccan man thrown to his death in the Seine River amid a far-right march over two decades ago.

Mr Macron joined the man's son and anti-National Front protesters at an annual commemoration near the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The National Front traditionally holds a May Day march in Paris to honour Joan of Arc. But at the 1995 event, some skinheads broke away and pushed 29-year-old Brahim Bourram off a bridge into the Seine River, where he drowned. The death drew national outrage.

Standing on the same bridge on Monday, Mr Macron hugged Mr Bourram's son Said, who was nine when his father was killed.

Said, a chauffeur who supports Mr Macron, said his father was targeted "because he was a foreigner, an Arab. That is why I am fighting, to say 'No' to racism".

Mr Macron said, despite Marine Le Pen's efforts to distance herself from her father's anti-Semitism, "the roots are there, and they are very much alive".

Mr Macron declared: "I will not forget anything and I will fight to the last second, not only against her project but against the idea she has of democracy and the nation."

Polls consider Mr Macron the front-runner in the run-off but the race has been unpredictable.

Over the weekend, Ms Le Pen was endorsed by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative candidate who lost in the first round of voting. Mr Dupont-Aignan shocked many by agreeing to be Ms Le Pen's prime minister if she wins the presidency.

Press Association

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