France's would-be presidents rally in Paris days before vote

AP News
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Posted: Apr 17, 2017 8:28 PM
France's would-be presidents rally in Paris days before vote

PARIS (AP) — Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen hammered on themes that pump up supporters, like immigration and national identity, at her Paris rally on Monday as France's unpredictable presidential campaign neared its finish with a grab-bag of potential outcomes.

Questions rather than clarity defined France's presidential race a week before the first-round vote to narrow the field of 11 to a May 7 runoff between the top two vote getters.

Le Pen has been jostling with independent centrist Emmanuel Macron for the lead in polls, while hard-left rival Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative Francois Fillon begin to close the gap.

Scuffles between scores of opponents of Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front party and riot police broke out ahead of her rally, delaying its start. Her campaign director announced to the crowd of thousands that a party lawmaker had been attacked on his way in, denouncing the masked youth as "extreme-left scum." Lawmaker Gilbert Collard was unharmed.

A woman later jumped onto the stage as Le Pen spoke but was quickly slammed to the floor and removed.

In her speech, Le Pen, who says France has been subjugated by the European Union and waves of mostly Muslim immigration, called the upcoming vote "historical."

"What is being played next Sunday is an issue of civilization."

The race is being watched internationally as an important gauge of populist sentiment, captured notably by Le Pen, with her nationalist program presented under the slogan "In the Name of the People."

"We could end up with all the duels possible," said Emmanuel Riviere, director of French polling for Kantar Public. "We have four candidates who could potentially reach the second round (with) polarization around the extremes on left and right."

The situation bespeaks "an undeniable demand for change," he said.

Le Pen vowed Monday to end the borderless Schengen Treaty so France can control its frontiers and with that, she claims, stop both immigration and the terrorist threat.

"We opened the door of the house of France to the mafia, to terrorists who quickly understood the benefits they could get from our incredible powerlessness and send their soldiers of hate among the migrant flows to hit our country in the heart," she said.

The crowd stood, cheered and chanted, "On est chez nous," or "We are in our land."

Macron, the former economy minister in the Socialist government and one-time investment banker, promised an "open, confident, winning France," painting that as a contrast to his far-right and far-left rivals and their anti-system platforms.

Melenchon, enjoying a late poll surge, campaigned on a barge Monday floating through the canals of Paris. Conservative candidate Francois Fillon took his tough-on-security campaign to the southern French city of Nice, which was scarred by a deadly truck attack last year that killed 86 people.

Le Pen's nationalist rhetoric and Melenchon's anti-globalization campaign have resonated with French voters sick of the status quo. Macron also paints himself as an anti-establishment figure — seeking to bury the traditional left-right spectrum that has governed France for decades.

The latest polls suggest that Le Pen, Macron, Melenchon and Fillon all have a chance of reaching the runoff — and as many as a third of voters remain undecided.

Organizers of Macron's rally claimed it drew 20,000 people. Le Pen held her rally in an entertainment hall that holds a maximum of 6,000. It appeared not quite full.

Without naming them, he said Le Pen and Melenchon want to isolate France form the rest of the world.

"We feel everywhere the temptation of barbarism ready to surge in other guises ... No, we will not let them do it," he said.

He also made an implicit reference to Fillon, suggesting some are seeking the presidency to get judicial immunity.

Fillon's austerity-focused campaign has been damaged by accusations that he misused taxpayer money to pay his wife and children for government jobs that they allegedly did not perform. French investigators are probing the case. Fillon denies wrongdoing.

He is focusing instead on security issues that resonate with many voters after two years of deadly attacks across the country.

Meanwhile, Melenchon, speaking on a river boat, said he doesn't want France to exit the European Union but would be ready to do so if other member states don't accept negotiations to reform the 28-nation bloc.

"European treaties are destroying Europe. I am not destroying Europe ... I'm not provoking nationalist feeling everywhere," he said. Europe's bad management "is pushing people toward that."

Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon insisted Monday that he, too, remains a contender, saying on Europe-1 radio that "things are evolving."

The Socialists' campaign has suffered from internal divisions and Socialist President Francois Hollande's dismal image. So unpopular, he is not seeking a second term. Le Pen said to laughs from the crowd that he sent in "baby Hollande" — Macron.

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.