Image copyright AFP Image caption Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was physically restrained by supporters after being grabbed by the neck
A far-right presidential candidate in France has been assaulted by supporters of her rivals, with violent clashes breaking out as the vote neared.
Marine Le Pen was grabbed by the neck by some of those in the crowd who wanted to reach out and touch her, and police had to restrain her.
The Front National (FN) candidate has faced mounting calls from within her own party to distance herself from the far-right scene in recent weeks.
Front National lawmaker Jean-David Levitte had called for Ms Le Pen to refuse to participate in the first round vote.
“I called on my number two leader to meet after the vote to announce that she will not be in the second round,” he told AFP news agency earlier.
Reacting to the violence at the rally in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, the candidate said she regretted the violence and blamed outsiders.
“It was not the Front National crowd, it was middle-class citizens who tried to come together to shout at us, as they have done in cities like Paris, who attack us with pepper spray and spit,” she said.
The altercation was apparently sparked by leaflets that Ms Le Pen’s supporters had circulated in the immediate wake of the vote, which suggested Ms Le Pen was the “leader of the white race” who rejected multiculturalism and gave homage to the “principal protector of our white culture”, local councillor Sylvain Dumas was quoted as saying by RTL radio.
The leaflets said Marine Le Pen “lives in a white-only neighbourhood in France”.
“It was originally about the fact that she likes people who live in France and that it’s irresponsible to suppose that France is all white,” said Mr Dumas.
Image copyright AFP Image caption The incident came just hours before the first round vote
A radio journalist who had spoken to one of the campaigners for far-right hopeful Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, went to investigate but police blocked him.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “uncomfortable” with scenes at the FN meeting, arguing the FN was a part of French life that needed to take into account its “inherent contradictions”.
Mr Macron’s comments followed a visit to the front-runner’s home town of Amiens, northern France, where supporters greeted him with yellow smoke bombs and yellow hoods draped with the French tricolour.
Since taking over from her father Jean-Marie, Marine Le Pen has established a more pro-business, modernised image for the FN.
She has also tried to rally a more moderate, socially liberal wing within the party. But these efforts have sparked divisions within the party and have raised fears she may eventually throw away the chance to form a governing majority after the election.
In January, she criticised the far-right slogans adopted by the far-right Sweden Democrats in Sweden as “way too similar” to the FN and called for the Nordic country to stick to “left-wing” values.
She has a virtual tie with independent centrist Emmanuel Macron in the polls, which has forced her into the one-round election.
Image copyright AFP Image caption Recent polls indicate both Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron are on around 26%
The two contenders contesting the first round on Sunday are Ms Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, on around 26%. The rest of the contenders are much further back.
After the first round, a run-off between the two top candidates is scheduled on 7 May.
Even if Ms Le Pen – who would be France’s first far-right president since 1989 – makes it that far, opinion polls indicate it is highly unlikely she will be elected president.