French presidential elections: Marine Le Pen rally in Corsica descends into chaos as demonstrators storm venue

Will Worley

A Front National rally in Corsica descended into chaos after protesters stormed a building where Marine Le Pen was due to speak.

The protesters, from the Corsican nationalist group Ghjuventù Indipendentista (GI), said they would never let the Front National “come safely to our country”.

A number of activists fought with Ms Le Pen’s security team in Ajaccio, the capital of the Mediterranean island, which has a strong nationalist tradition.

The incident on Saturday is the latest drama in France’s tense presidential elections, in which Ms Le Pen is a frontrunner. She is tying in polls with centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, but he is still predicted to beat her in the runoff.

Another right-wing candidate, Francois Fillon, has been dogged by a corruption scandal and is four points behind Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron. Mr Fillon is tying with far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Ms Le Pen’s promises of a tough stance on immigration, Muslims and the European Union have resonated with many in France, where a number of vicious terror attacks have taken place in recent years. But she remains highly divisive despite her efforts to moderate the Front National.

Under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party maintained a strong line against Corsican nationalism, which some groups on the island had historically pursued using violent methods.

Ms Le Pen’s visit to Corsica prompted the action from dozens of GI activists, who chanted: "We do not want the National Front", local newspaper Corse Matin reported.

At least a dozen activists broke into the Palais des Congres, where Ms Le Pen was due to speak, and fought with security guards before being thrown out. Mace was also reportedly discharged at activists during the fighting.

Entre 12 et 15 independantistes évacués sans ménagements de la salle du meeting #MLPAjaccio

— Dominique Albertini (@dom_albertini) April 8, 2017

Outside, demonstrators clashed with police in riot gear, as others held signs saying ‘No to Fascism’. Tear gas was fired and activists threw objects at officers.

Après le meeting FN, échauffourées entre jeunes natios corses et CRS devant le Palais des congrès d'Ajaccio

— Dominique Albertini (@dom_albertini) April 8, 2017

One Front National activist was “seriously injured”, Ms Le Pen’s campaign manager David Rachline said. He posted a photo to Twitter of the wounded man, blaming the local commissioner for not doing enough to secure the venue.

Mr Rachline referred to the protesters as a “left wing militia”.

The hall evacuated and the rally was moved to another room. At least one person was arrested.

After a delay of more than an hour, Ms Le Pen addressed a crowd of supporters, criticising her rivals in the race and making overtures to the local electorate.

"You are Corsican but you are French, so be both at the same time," Ms Le Pen told the rally. She also praised the “subtle marriage between the cultures that forge our magnificent national identity,” Liberation reported.

GI later released a statement justifying their actions and referenced a similar demonstration against Mr Le Pen in 1992.

“We could not accept that the candidate of the Front National would come to our land to spread its discourse, marked by the seal of hatred and corruption,” the statement said.

"We will never let this party, whose former leader had demanded the death penalty for Corsican political prisoners, come safely to our country."

“We reaffirm to Marine Le Pen as to all the other candidates in the French presidential election that Corsica is not a simple French region but a free nation that will be reborn, that the Corsican people are an irrefutable historical reality that cannot be blended with the French people.”

The GI said they were determined to fight the “nauseating ideas” of the National Front.

Local nationalist politicians also defended the protesters. Jean-Guy Talamoni, President of the Corsican Assembly, tweeted that he “supported the young Corsican militants”.

The Corsican independence movement has been active since the 1960s and has sometimes been characterised by violence.

The National Liberation Front of Corsica (FNLC), who advocate independence for the island, used bombings, bank robberies and other violent methods to achieve their aims. They were linked to at least 40 murders and often attacked foreigners who owned property on Corsica, leading to hostility with French politicians such as Mr Le Pen.

However, the FNLC laid down arms in 2014 and a nationalist regional government was peacefully elected in 2015.

Corsica is culturally distinct from France and has its own language. Observers have often likened it to Italian islands such as Sicily, rather than the continental mainland.

Additional reporting by Reuters