Brutal French presidential race enters final stretch

2017-05-05 15:49
Emmanuel Macron waves to his supporters during a campaign rally in Paris. (Christophe Ena, AP)

Emmanuel Macron waves to his supporters during a campaign rally in Paris. (Christophe Ena, AP)

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Paris - French centrist Emmanuel Macron sought to cement his front runner status on Friday on the last day of campaigning for the weekend's election run-off after a bruising and divisive race.

Pro-European Macron and far-right anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen have offered starkly different visions for France during a campaign that has been closely watched in Europe and the rest of the world.

And the battle has only increased in intensity in the final days after a bad-tempered debate - with Macron filing a legal complaint over rumours he has an offshore account.

Both candidates plan high-profile television appearances on the final day as they seek to win over voters, with polls suggesting the 39-year-old Macron enjoys a 20-point lead over his opponent.

At a final rally on Thursday in the northern village of Ennemain, Le Pen told supporters she would give them back the keys to the Elysee Palace.

"France cannot wait five more years to hold its head high," she said.

At an earlier stop in the western town of Dol-de-Bretagne, protesters threw eggs at her entourage, although she was not hit.

During a final rally in the southwest town of Albi, Macron told cheering supporters: "We will keep our promise of change to the end".

However, the former economy minister came under fire from dozens of union activists demanding the abolition of France's controversial 2016 labour reforms.

'Fake news' 

Macron's legal complaint came after Le Pen repeated rumours he had an offshore account during Wednesday's TV debate, during which the pair clashed over terrorism, the economy and Europe watched by 16.5 million people.

"I hope that we will not find out that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas," Le Pen said during the debate, which was her last chance to narrow the gap.

The 39-year-old ex-economy minister described his rival's insinuation as "defamation", and after his complaint, French prosecutors launched a probe on Thursday into who started the rumour.

Macron's campaign team called it a "textbook case" of "fake news", saying it was spread on Twitter by accounts close to Kremlin-friendly news sites like Sputnik and RT as well as supporters of US President Donald Trump.

Le Pen hit back on French radio on Friday saying she was "not at all" the target of the legal suit and her National Front (FN) party had "absolutely nothing to do" with the rumours.

The FN party said her campaign website had been repeatedly targeted by a hacker close to the far-left, who was arrested last week.

After the debate, a snap poll by French broadcaster BFMTV found that nearly two-thirds of viewers thought Macron was the "most convincing" of the two, broadly mirroring forecasts for the decisive election on Sunday.

In the first round of the election on April 23, Le Pen finished second behind Macron with 21.3% after softening the FN's image over the past six years - but without fully removing doubt about the party's core beliefs.

Greenpeace militants sought to highlight Le Pen's potentially divisive message by unfurling a banner reading "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" ("Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood") on the Eiffel Tower.

Le Pen has tried to portray Macron as being soft on Islamic fundamentalism, playing to the concerns of many of her supporters after a string of terror attacks in France.

She sees her rise as the consequence of growing right-wing nationalism and a backlash against globalisation reflected in the election of Donald Trump in the United States and Britain's shock vote to leave the EU.

Meanwhile, Macron won high-profile backing from former US president Barack Obama, who said in a video he "appeals to people's hopes and not their fears".

Obama said Macron had "put forward a vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world" and added "Vive la France!"

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