A protester in Nantes at the weekend. Photo: AFP
Journalists accused of bias. Judges said to be taking orders from the president. The country in a state of “near civil war.”
This isn't America's bitter presidential election campaign last year, but France's in 2017.
The latest comments from conservative Francois Fillon, who has accused the Socialist government of failing to protect candidates, underline the increasingly ugly tone of France's campaign.
Clashes in the western city of Nantes at the weekend during a demonstration against far-right leader Marine Le Pen and attacks on buses transporting her supporters were “unacceptable,” he said on Monday.
On Sunday evening, he accused the government of “failing to create the conditions for the peaceful exercise of democracy,” accusing it of allowing “a climate of near civil war to develop in the country.”
Seven police officers were injured on Saturday in Nantes including one with serious burns when anarchists and vandals began throwing rocks and firebombs during an anti-Le Pen protest.
Fillon, the former frontrunner whose bid has been thrown into turmoil by a corruption investigation, also said his campaign events were being disrupted “every day” by far-left activists.
Both Fillon and Le Pen have also attacked judicial investigations into their use of allegedly fake parliamentary aides as an attempt by outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande to influence the election.
Fillon has described an inquiry launched in January as an “institutional coup d'etat” and has accused journalists of trying to carry out a “lynching” and an “assassination”.
Herve Le Bras, a veteran political observer and head of research at the EHESS social sciences university in Paris, said he could detect the influence of US President Donald Trump in the French campaign.
“The way that Trump has defied the justice system and attacked the media, calling them 'fake news', I think in a way it's encouraging Fillon and Marine Le Pen to copy,” he told AFP.
“They can see that it seems to work in the United States,” he said.
Attacks on media
Fillon, a 62-year-old former prime minister, faces allegations he paid his wife for 15 years as a fake assistant, while one of Le Pen's aides was charged last week over allegations the party defrauded the European parliament.
Both deny any wrongdoing but their attacks have repeatedly questioned the independence and neutrality of the justice system ahead of a two-stage
presidential election on April 23 and May 7.
Polls currently show independent centrist Emmanuel Macron as the most likely winner, though analysts caution against any firm forecasts after a
rollercoaster campaign and the surprises of Brexit and Trump in 2016.
Fillon was the clear frontrunner until January when newspaper Le Canard Enchaine brought his wife's job to light.
“To imagine that investigations could have been ordered on Fillon or Marine Le Pen is completely absurd because it would be illegal,” Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas told a newspaper on Sunday.
Le Pen went ahead with her rally in Nantes on Sunday where she delivered a speech laced with criticism of how French democracy had been corrupted by the political establishment, the media and financial interests.
She attacked media groups who “sob about having lost the confidence of readers who justifiably are going on the internet to get their news,” she said.
Last week, she refused to be questioned by anti-corruption investigators, saying she would not respond to summons during the presidential campaign.
Faced with Fillon's and Le Pen's mounting defiance, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve responded on Monday.
“In politics, especially during campaigning, you need a certain dignity, a high-mindedness, and respect for the truth,” he said during a visit to a farm show.
Urvoas went further in an interview on France 2 television, accusing Fillon of trying to divert attention away from his legal problems.
“Really, a 'near civil war'? … Before he was talking about an 'institutional coup d'etat', what will he say next? 'An extermination of the programmes'? 'A Holocaust of the candidates'?” he said.
Fillon's might just be taking advice from his former boss for five years, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The two men lunched together 10 days ago during which Sarkozy was reported to have encouraged Fillon to “dominate the media space: a headline-grabbing announcement every day.”