France’s former presidential election front-runner has likened the atmosphere in the country to “near civil war” amid investigations, scandals and violent protests.
Francois Fillon, the former Prime Minister, accused the government of “failing to create the conditions for the peaceful exercise of democracy” and allowing "a climate of near civil war to develop in the country”.
He spoke after clashes in the city of Nantes, where police were injured by protesters during a visit by far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
The violence, seeing police respond to Molotov cocktails and rocks with tear gas, followed weeks of unrest in Paris over a police officer’s alleged rape of a black man.
“We are in a state of emergency but the government allows this to go on,” Mr Fillon said, accusing “thugs and enemies of democracy” of disrupting the election campaign.
Running for the centre-right Républicains party, Mr Fillon was considered the front-runner for France’s presidency until January, when a scandal erupted over payments made to his wife.
The politician was placed under judicial investigation last week but backtracked on his previous pledge to step down from the race in the event of a formal probe into whether his wife, Penelope, carried out the work for which she was paid.
Opinion polls currently put him lagging in third place for the first round of the French election, behind Front National leader Marine Le Pen and centre-left independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.
The two front-runners are just a handful of percentage points apart in polls, with most putting Ms Le Pen narrowly ahead in the first round but predicting a heavy defeat in the second and decisive vote.
The French Prime Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, was dismissive of Mr Fillon’s comparisons to a “civil war”, calling it irresponsible and accusing the candidate of debasing public debate.
“I can understand that certain candidates are tempted to hide their campaign difficulties behind polemics,” he added. “In politics, especially during campaigning, you need a certain dignity, a high-mindedness, and respect for the truth.”
Critics accused Mr Fillon of using the sensational comments as an attempt to distract from his legal difficulties.
Both he and Ms Le Pen have attacked judicial investigations into their use of parliamentary aides as an attempt by outgoing President Francois Hollande and his Socialist Party to influence the vote.
Mr 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", in remarks compared to Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the media.
He and Ms Le Pen have questioned the judiciary’s independence ahead of the first round of voting in April but the justice minister said any suggestion probes could have been “ordered” by political opponents was absurd.
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