Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has said she can pull off a surprise victory in France’s high-stakes run-off election on Sunday. Centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron accused Ms Le Pen of exploiting voter fears as a hostile and angry campaign came to a close.
Ms Le Pen told the Associated Press that, win or lose, “we changed everything” as she claimed an “ideological victory” for her populist, anti-immigration world-view that has dominated a contest that could change Europe’s direction.
Mr Macron acknowledged French people are exasperated by the government’s ineffectiveness but dismissed Ms Le Pen’s vision of an infuriated country, telling RTL radio that she “speaks for no-one. Madame Le Pen exploits anger and hatred”.
The candidates must stop campaigning at midnight on Friday to give voters a day of reflection before the election. Tensions marred the race right to the end as anti-Le Pen crowds disrupted her visit to a renowned cathedral in Reims in Champagne country.
The campaign has been unusually bitter, with voters hurling eggs and flour, protesters clashing with police and candidates insulting each other on national television – a reflection of the widespread public disaffection with politics.
Ms Le Pen, 48, has brought her National Front party closer than ever to the presidency, riding a wave of populism and growing frustration amid working working-class voters with globalisation and immigration.
Even if she loses, she is likely to be a powerful opposition figure in French politics in the coming parliamentary election campaign and beyond.
“Even if we don’t reach our goal, in any event there is a gigantic political force that is born,” she told AP in her campaign headquarters. Her party managed to “impose the overhaul” of French politics and set the tone of the election, she said.
The 39-year-old Mr Macron, too, played a key role in that, with his wild-card campaign outside the traditional party structure. Voters chose Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen in the first-round vote on April 23, dumping the traditional left-right parties that have governed modern France. Students protesting both candidates on Friday blocked high schools and marched through Paris.
Ms Le Pen, who was pelted with eggs on Thursday in Brittany, was met by hecklers at the Reims cathedral.
She left via an unmarked door, putting her arms over her head as if to protect herself from projectiles and diving into a black car.
Returning to her headquarters, she denounced the critics for disrupting a sacred place during her final campaign stop. The site has special meaning for her National Front because it is the cathedral where Clovis was crowned in the presence of Joan of Arc – the party’s icon.
The pro-business Mr Macron, who topped all vote-getters in the first-round but is widely disliked, also has been booed and heckled frequently as he visited blue-collar workers. Violent protests erupted in Paris earlier this week against both candidates, with several police officers injured. Critics also decried the bitter tone of Wednesday’s presidential debate.
Ms Le Pen acknowledged to AP that she became angry at the debate but said she was reflecting the mood of France. “My words were nothing but the reflection of the anger that will explode in this country,” she told RTL.