PARIS — Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said Friday she believes she can pull off a surprise victory in France’s high-stakes runoff election Sunday, while centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron accused of her of exploiting voter fears.
In an interview with The Associated Press in the final hours of a hostile, topsy-turvy campaign, Le Pen said that win or lose, “we changed everything.” She claimed an “ideological victory” for her populist, anti-immigration worldview that has dominated a contest that could change Europe’s direction.
Macron acknowledged that the French are exasperated by the government’s ineffectiveness, but he dismissed Le Pen’s vision of an infuriated country, telling RTL radio that she “speaks for no one. … Madame Le Pen exploits anger and hatred.”
The candidates must stop campaigning at midnight Friday to give voters a day of reflection before the election. It’s a stark choice: Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-European Union platform, or Macron’s progressive, pro-business view.
Tensions marred the race right to the end, as anti-Le Pen crowds disrupted her visit to a renowned cathedral in Reims in Champagne country.
The campaign has been unusually bitter, with voters hurling eggs and flour, protesters clashing with police, and candidates insulting each other on national television — a reflection of the widespread public disaffection with politics as usual.
Le Pen, 48, has brought her National Front party closer than ever to the presidency, riding a wave of populism and growing frustration amid working class voters with globalization and immigration. Even if she loses, she is likely to be a powerful opposition figure in French politics in the coming parliamentary election campaign and beyond.
“Even if we don’t reach our goal, in any event there is a gigantic political force that is born,” she told AP in her campaign headquarters.
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, Le Pen said she has achieved an “ideological victory. … We changed everything.”
Her party managed to “impose the overhaul” of French politics and set the tone of the election, she said.
The 39-year-old Macron, too, played a key role in that, with his wild-card campaign outside the traditional party structure.
Voters liked the idea, and chose Macron and Le Pen in the first-round vote April 23, dumping the traditional left-right parties that have governed modern France. Le Pen said those parties have been “blackballed.”
Many voters, however, don’t like either Le Pen or Macron. They fear her party’s racist past, while worrying that his platform would demolish worker protections or be too much like his mentor, the deeply unpopular outgoing President Francois Hollande.
Students protesting both candidates Friday blocked high schools and marched through Paris.
Le Pen, who was pelted with eggs Thursday in Brittany, was met by hecklers at the Reims cathedral. She left via an unmarked door, putting her arms over her head as if to protect herself from projectiles, and diving into a black car.
Returning to her headquarters, Le Pen denounced the critics for disrupting a sacred place during her final campaign stop. The site has special meaning for her National Front because it is the cathedral where Clovis was crowned in the presence of Joan of Arc — the party’s icon.
In the AP interview, Le Pen said she was confident she can bring the divided country together if elected.
“Yes. I want most of all to put democracy back in place. … We must reconnect the links among people.” She said.
Macron, by contrast, would worsen divisions, she added.
The pro-business Macron, who topped all vote-getters in the first-round but is widely disliked, also has been booed and heckled frequently as he visited blue-collar workers.
Violent protests erupted in Paris earlier this week against both candidates, with several police officers injured. And critics decried the bitter tone of Wednesday night’s presidential debate.
Le Pen acknowledged to AP that she became angry at the debate but said she merely was channeling the mood of France.
“My words were nothing but the reflection of the anger that will explode in this country,” she 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.
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,” — a reference to Le Pen’s nationalist views and Macron’s pro-business ties.
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, Jean-Marie, 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.”
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, Samuel Petrequin and Thomas Adamson contributed.
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