With just six days until a French presidential vote which could define Europe’s future, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron are holding high-stakes rallies overlapping with nationwide May Day union marches.
The tense campaign interrupted the usual calm of the May Day holiday, as supporters of both candidates took to the streets, airwaves and social networks to weigh in on an election closely watched by global financial markets and France’s neighbours as a test of the global populist wave.
Ms Le Pen’s efforts to clean up the racism and anti-Semitism that has stained her anti-immigration National Front party’s past may be undermined by a parallel Paris event by her father, Jean-Marie, who was expelled from the party over his extreme views. Seeking to remind voters of the National Front’s dark past, Mr Macron paid homage to a Moroccan man thrown to his death in the Seine River on the sidelines of a far-right march more than two decades ago.
Mr Macron joined the man’s son and anti-National Front protesters at an annual commemoration near the Louvre Museum. The National Front traditionally holds a march in central Paris on May 1 to honour Joan of Arc. At the 1995 event, a group of skinheads broke away and pushed 29-year-old Brahim Bourram off a bridge into the Seine, where he drowned. Then-party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen sought to distance himself from the attackers, but the death drew national outrage.
Standing on the bridge, Mr Macron hugged Bourram’s son Said, who was nine years old when his father was killed. Said, now 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 insisted that 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.
“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, but the race has been exceptionally unpredictable.
Jean-Marie Le Pen is holding the Joan of Arc event again, a march his daughter wants nothing to do with. Instead, she is holding a rally in an exhibition centre north of Paris. Marine Le Pen said on France-2 television that the political rupture with her father “is definitive”.
She called it a “violent” decision for herself, but said she did it “because the higher interest of the country was at stake”. Her event will be opened by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative candidate from the first-round election who shocked many French by agreeing to be Ms Le Pen’s prime minister if she wins the presidency.
Ms Le Pen, speaking on Europe-1 radio, reached out to “all those who are patriots” and who want to restore French borders and currency and “rediscover the voice of labour, defend our identity, fight against Islamic fundamentalism”. Meanwhile, the traditional May 1 union marches across France will be politically charged this year. Some groups want a united front to keep Ms Le Pen from the presidency, but unions also fear that Mr Macron – a former investment banker – will dismantle worker protections.
Mr Macron, who says his plans to restructure France’s complex labour laws would boost job creation, said May 1 “is the face of a globalisation that protects workers … an accomplishment of the great labour fights to defend worker rights. … Globalisation is not only the face of those who oppress”.