France election: May Day rallies marred by violence as masked protesters hit the streets

Paris: Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron hunted working class votes on Tuesday, entering the final week of an increasingly nasty campaign for president. Thousands across France celebrated May Day by showing their top concerns are jobs and the kind of country the next leader will give them.

Amid the holiday marches, masked demonstrators threw firebombs at police in Paris before being dispersed by tear gas. Four officers were injured, with one seriously burned in the face, Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said. While violence from fringe groups is a standard presence in French demonstrations, at least some of those who mixed in the union-organised march came with an angry message against both candidates.

File image of Emmanuel Macron. Reuters

File image of Emmanuel Macron. Reuters

"Not one or the other; instead it's the people's self-defense" read one sign. "Macron equals Louis XVI, Le Pen equals Le Pen," read another, a reference to Marine Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, the co-founder of the anti-immigration National Front party known for his extremist views.

Sunday's runoff election is being watched closely by other European governments and financial markets to see if the French hand power to the populist Le Pen. Mainstream parties on the left and right failed to form a bloc against her as they did in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen was trounced by Jacques Chirac.

Addressing thousands at a venue outside Paris, Marine Le Pen skewered Macron, a former investment banker, as a puppet of financiers and Islamic fundamentalists, a lapdog of Socialist President Francois Hollande and a member of the "caviar left". His pro-business policies, she warned, would leave French workers hungry.

Cheers of "Marine President!" and anti-immigrant chants rose to the rafters. Whether she wanted it or not, Le Pen got an endorsement from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who co-founded the National Front party she now leads. The senior Le Pen has often been decried as a racist; his daughter ejected him from the party in 2015 as part of her bid to make the National Front more politically acceptable.

"She is not Joan of Arc, but she accepts the same mission...France," Jean-Marie Le Pen said at his traditional May Day rally. He denounced the front-running Macron as a "masked Socialist" backed by the highly unpopular Hollande, who did not seek a second term. Macron once served as Hollande's economy minister.

Referring to France's stagnant economy and its jobless rate of about 10 per cent, the elder Le Pen said of Macron: "He wants to dynamise the economy, but he is among those who dynamited it."

The 39-year-old Macron returned the insults at a Paris rally in front of thousands of supporters. He criticised Marine Le Pen's "rude manners" and called her "the heir", a reference to her father, who has been convicted of racism and anti-Semitism.

"Don't boo her, fight her! Go and convince (others), make her lose next Sunday," he told the crowd. Macron is campaigning on pro-European, pro-free market, liberal views that could not be more different from Le Pen's anti-globalisation, anti-European Union stance. She calls Macron a member of the "oligarchy" that she says has turned France into a servant of EU bureaucrats, ruined the economy and destroyed its culture with "massive immigration" that also endangers society by failing to crack down on Islamic fundamentalists.

While Macron is favoured in the polls, a high abstention rate or a blank protest ballot could help Le Pen.

Bit by bit, opposition is rising to Le Pen, from politicians, students, anti-racism groups and cultural representatives. However, there has been no alliance of left and right forces like that which elected the conservative Chirac in 2002.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, eliminated in the first round on 23 April, strongly opposes Le Pen but has refused to endorse Macron.

Some remain angry and fearful about the possibility of a Le Pen victory. "It's facism, Naziism, homophobia, anti-Semitism: all her baggage and everything we've always been against and which scares me," said Pauline Davranche, 79, at a pro-Macron rally of students and the CFDT national trade union.

Le Pen supporters are equally adamant, with some seeing her as a saviour for a ravaged land. "She defends us, she protects us," said Antony Dubois, 26, a wholesale vendor from the eastern city of Metz. "She inspires me."

A Hollande voter in the last election in 2012, Dubois said he embraced Le Pen not out of anger but disappointment. "She is the only one with convictions," he said, adding that Macron, in trying to please everybody, "says yes to everything".

Updated Date: May 02, 2017 07:54 AM

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