France's Le Pen uses guerrilla tactics to unsettle Macron

Eloi ROUYER, Guy JACKSON
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French far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen took a trip on a fishing boat seeking to portray herself as the protector of small businesses

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen took a trip on a fishing boat seeking to portray herself as the protector of small businesses

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen hopped onto a fishing boat at dawn on Thursday as she pursued a guerrilla-style campaign that has upstaged frontrunner Emmanuel Macron.

It was still dark when Le Pen boarded a trawler at the small southern port of Grau-du-Roi for a four-hour trip out to sea, seeking to portray herself as the protector of small-time producers against the man she says embodies "unbridled globalisation".

The candidates' starkly differing visions on France's future are at the heart of the May 7 election run-off -- with Macron, a 39-year-old former banker, embracing free trade and the EU, while Le Pen wants to seal France's borders and quit the euro.

On a visit to the multi-ethnic Paris suburb of Sarcelles, Macron, who has championed diversity, was greeted with chants of "Macron, president".

"France is not what Mrs Le Pen says it is," he said. "It is not this narrow, hateful face put forth by Marine Le Pen."

The welcome he received in the suburb known as "Little Jerusalem" for its large Jewish and Muslim populations was a far cry from the one he got in his northern France hometown of Amiens a day previously.

Macron was booed and heckled when he made a visit to a Whirlpool factory where the US appliances giant is threatening to partially outsource production to Poland.

The besuited former economy minister had been meeting kilometres away with union representatives from the plant, but he was upstaged when Le Pen showed up at the factory unannounced.

Her appearance forced a hasty change in plans and Macron ended up spending more than an hour debating with workers amid chaotic scenes as dozens of TV camera teams crowded around him.

- 'Gone fishing' -

Macron and Le Pen topped the first round of the election on Sunday to advance to the runoff, but not everyone is happy with the line-up.

On Thursday, students demonstrating against both candidates clashed with police in Paris, hurled bottles at the officers who responded with tear gas.

Black-clad demonstrators broke off from a 1,000-strong demonstration of mostly teens waving signs that said "Neither the banker, nor the racist".

Le Pen, 48, went on the attack against her pro-business rival, accusing him of supporting an "an ultra-liberal economy" and "total deregulation".

Macron hit back in a Twitter message that reminded voters of the National Front (FN) candidate's pledge to pull out of the eurozone and hold a referendum on France's membership of the European Union.

"Madame Le Pen has gone fishing. Have a good trip. Withdrawing from Europe as she proposes would mean the end of the French fishing industry. Think about that," he wrote.

The latest poll suggests Macron will defeat Le Pen by a margin of 21 points in the runoff on May 7, and figures from France's traditional left and right -- both absent from the second round -- have backed him too.

Macron, who has never held elected office, was accused of a laggardly start to his second-round campaign but has stepped up the pace over the past 24 hours.

Le Pen has attempted to catch him off guard by popping up in industrially depressed areas of northern France before the journey to the Mediterranean coast.

Later Thursday, she will hold a major rally in the Riviera city of Nice, a rightwing stronghold where she will try to win over voters who preferred Francois Fillon -- the conservative candidate who was knocked out in Sunday's first round.

- 'No respite' -

Macron, stung by the criticism that he was not taking the fight to his rival, told supporters on Wednesday: "I will not allow her a centimetre of space, not a second of respite, not an ounce of energy."

The "Battle of Amiens" at the Whirlpool factory -- as leftwing daily Liberation called it -- was the standout moment of the election so far, even though the candidates were not at the site at the same time.

Much of campaign was dominated by the legal woes engulfing Fillon.

But on Thursday there was a reminder of the allegations of wrongdoing also hanging over Le Pen.

Investigators probing alleged FN expenses fraud at the European Parliament said the sum involved was now believed to be nearly five million euros ($5.5 million), more than twice an initial estimate.

The parliament accuses the FN of using funds meant for parliamentary assistants to pay staff including a bodyguard to work in France between 2012 and 2017, which contravenes the assembly's rules.

In March, Le Pen invoked her immunity as an MEP in refusing to submit to questioning by French prosecutors until after the election.

"Five million euros, that's nonsense," said Wallerand de Saint Just, National Front party treasurer.

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