Protests and ‘violence’ as bad-tempered French presidential race nears finale


The final day of campaigning in France’s presidential election has featured protests and a candidate accusing the other’s supporters of “violence” as the bad-tempered contest reaches its finale. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen used Twitter to accuse the supporters of her rival, centrist Emmanuel Macron, of disrespecting a sacred place after hostile protesters disrupted her surprise visit to Reims cathedral.

“Monsieur Macron’s supporters act with violence everywhere, even in … a symbolic and sacred place. No dignity,” she wrote. Ms Le Pen, who was pelted with eggs a day earlier in Brittany, was seen leaving the cathedral on Friday via an unmarked door.

She put her arms over her head as if to protect herself from projectiles and dove into a black car. Some 12 people have been arrested after environmental activists hung a protest sign on the Eiffel Tower. The Greenpeace activists converged on the tower at around 5am and managed to keep the banner, emblazoned with the French motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, on display for around 45 minutes.

Six of them rappelled from the tower’s archway beneath the banner in a protest against Ms Le Pen. The pro-business Mr Macron, who won the first round but is widely disliked, has also been frequently booed and heckled as he visited blue-collar workers – most recently on Thursday at a glass factory near Toulouse.

Violent protests also erupted in Paris earlier this week against both candidates in which several police officers were injured and one seriously burnt by a Molotov cocktail. Critics said the bitter tone of Wednesday night’s presidential debate was off-putting. Mr Macron mostly kept his calm during testy exchanges while Ms Le Pen was more aggressive from the outset.

The debate was also the least-watched televised French presidential debate in a generation, attracting an audience of just 16.5 million. Ms Le Pen acknowledged that she became angry at the debate, but said her anger merely reflected the mood of the country. “My words were nothing but the reflection of the anger that will explode in this country,” she told RTL radio.

She criticized Mr Macron as the candidate of the elite and said the French have had enough of failing political and economic situations. He countered that she was exploiting anger and insecurity – not reflecting it. He acknowledged that the French are exasperated by the government’s ineffectiveness, but dismissed Ms Le Pen’s vision of an infuriated country.

“Madame Le Pen speaks for no one. Madame Le Pen exploits anger and hatred,” he told RTL.

The unprecedented negativity in one of the most unpredictable and scandal-hit French presidential campaigns in recent times has turned off countless voters. One concern – particularly for Mr Macron who founded his own political movement just a year ago – is that left-wing and mainstream voters will simply stay at home on Sunday.

On Friday, students protesting about both candidates blocked 10 high schools in Paris. About 100 students pulled rubbish bins in front of the entrance to the Lycee Colbert in north-east Paris. They had cardboard signs saying “Neither Le Pen nor Macron, neither the fatherland nor the boss”, in a reference to Ms Le Pen’s nationalist views and Mr Macron’s pro-business ties.

Students at another school, Lycee Buffon, wrote an open letter calling on the French to exercise their vote and recalling the fate of five students shot in 1943 for fighting the Nazis. Ms Le Pen’s father has minimized the Holocaust and her National Front party has been stained by anti-Semitism in the past.
“Even if I’m not old enough to vote, I’m concerned,” the letter said.

“Dear reader, you should know that Marine Le Pen’s France is not the France we love. Our France is beautiful, tolerant and cosmopolitan. So go and vote on Sunday, for this France, this democracy.” Mr Macron echoed their call, saying anyone who accepts modern French democracy must accept the choice in front of them.

“I’m not going to lament our democracy,” he said. “In the second round, you choose the candidate who perhaps was not your first choice.”

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