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Anger, protests, heckles define France’s presidential race

By Thomas Adamson and Lori Hinnant Associated Press

PARIS – Violent protests, anger, egg-throwing and heckling have all been part of France’s presidential election this year, triggering widespread voter apathy toward the two candidates still left standing. The unprecedented ugliness spilled over even into Friday’s final day of campaigning.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen took to Twitter to accuse the supporters of her rival, centrist Emmanuel Macron, of “violence” and 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,” Le Pen wrote.

Le Pen, who was pelted with eggs a day earlier in Brittany, was seen leaving the cathedral Friday via an unmarked door, putting her arms over her head as if to protect herself from projectiles, and diving into a black car.

The pro-business Macron, who won the first round vote but is widely disliked, has also been frequently booed and heckled as he visited blue-collar workers – most recently on a campaign stop 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 in the face from a Molotov cocktail.

Critics said the bitter tone of Wednesday night’s presidential debate was off-putting. Macron mostly kept his calm during testy exchanges while 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.

Le Pen acknowledged Friday that she became angry at the debate, but said her anger merely was channeling 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 Macron as the candidate of the elite and said the French have had enough of failing political and economic situations.

Macron 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 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 Macron who founded his own political movement just a year ago – is that left-wing and mainstream voters will simply stay home on Sunday.

On Friday, students protesting both candidates blocked 10 high schools in Paris.

About 100 students pulled garbage bins in front of the entrance to the Lycee Colbert in northeastern Paris, with cardboard signs saying “Neither Le Pen nor Macron, neither the fatherland nor the boss,” in a reference to Le Pen’s nationalist views and Macron’s pro-business ties.

But 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. 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.”

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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