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First polling stations open in French election amid high tension and tight security

Polling stations for the first round of the French presidential elections have opened amid high tensions and tight security following the latest terrorist incident in Paris.1

The latest polls show a surge in support for both the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen2 and far-left contender Jean-Luc Melenchon3, with a total of eleven candidates battling to go through to the run-off. Nationalist Ms Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron4 remain favourites for the final round, but this election is regarded as one of the most unpredictable in recent history because of fears over Islamist terrorism coupled with a 10 per cent unemployment rate and a faltering economy. Centre-right candidate Francois Fillon5, a former Prime Minister whose early campaigning was damaged by corruption allegations that his wife was paid but did no work as his parliamentary aide, appeared to be closing the gap, along with socialist stalwart Mr Melenchon.

With fears of possible further terrorist attacks, the French Government has mobilised more than 50,000 police and gendarmes to protect 70,000 polling stations, with an additional 7,000 soldiers on patrol. It is likely to be a close call between the top four candidates to get into the two-horse run-off on 7 May, with Fillon and Melenchon polling just two to three points behind Le Pen and Macron, meaning the decision could rest in the hands of the third of voters who have yet to make up their minds. The French go to the polls with Friday s terrorist incident fresh in their minds after a gunman carrying a note in support of Isis killed a Paris police officer Thursday before he was shot dead by security forces.

Polling stations opened in the Atlantic Ocean territories of Saint Pierre and Miquelon as well as French Guyana in South America, the Caribbean’s Guadeloupe and elsewhere . Voters abroad could also cast ballots in French embassies, with polls across France opening on Sunday. Political campaigning is banned this weekend until the polls close across France and online. Marine Le Pen pledges to expel ‘foreign extremists’

Ms Le Pen and Mr Fillon cancelled their final campaign events on Friday in the wake of the gun attack by Karim Cherufi, 39, but this did not stop Mr Macron from accusing the pair of trying to capitalise on terrorism with their hard-hitting anti-immigration messages and pledges to get tough over security.

Former investment banker and economics minister Mr Macron said that following the attack, it was vital that the French people summoned a spirit of responsibility in what is an extreme period and reach a measured response to a tragic event which has left our country in grief. He pledged that if elected, he would create a special unit that would work around the clock to tackle Isis, calling the fight against terrorism a moral challenge a challenge for civilisation. Ms Le Pen accused successive French governments of being too soft on extremism, and demanded the immediate expulsion of any foreigners with links to extremism or who are deemed to pose a risk to national security.

The Islamist, Salafist ideology has no right to be in France and should be banned . Preachers of hate should be expelled and their mosques closed, she said.

Mr Fillon said: For years I have been warning that we are confronting an Islamic totalitarianism: in other words, an ideology that is radical, organised and expansionist Whose goal is to destroy our civilisation and crush all enemies from south-east Asia right up to west Africa. Messages from both said France was at war with radical Islam, which they described as expansionist, organised and barbaric. Tensions threatened to boil over once again in Paris when a knife-wielding man caused widespread panic this afternoon at the Gare du Nord train station, although he was arrested without anyone being hurt.

Well-wishers paid their respects on Saturday at the site of the shooting which has become a shrine of flowers, candles and messages of solidarity for the slain police officer, Xavier Jugele. The attack dominated French headlines as the polls opened, but some liberals said they believed French stoicism will prevent an anticipated late lurch towards Ms Le Pen.

These 48 hours are not going to change everything .. . Terrorism is now an everyday occurrence . It’s permanent, 24 hours a day . So we’re not afraid .

If we’re believers in freedom, we must live with it, said Marise Moron, a retired doctor.

I’m not going to let myself be influenced by people who are trying to frighten us, Paris resident Anne-Marie Redouin said near the heavily-guarded Eiffel Tower. Others, fearful that Ms Le Pen has been strengthened by the instability, said they would shift their votes from fringe candidates in the hope of keeping the far-right out of power.

With an attack such as this one, I think the National Front will get a good result . Therefore I’ll change my intention and cast a useful vote either Melenchon or Macron, said physics teacher Omar Ilys, 44. The French pick for President could resonate far beyond the country s own shores, with implications for the UN, the Syrian war and refugee crisis and world trade.

Crucially, the election is also widely viewed as a ballot on the future of the European Union, following the imminent departure of the UK . Both Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon would like to pull France out of the 28-nation bloc and its shared Euro currency a so-called Frexit. Police in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris the day after a gunman opened fire on officers on the Champs-Elysees (Getty Images)

A French exit could sound the death knell for the EU, the euro and the whole idea of European unity that was borne out of the bloodshed of World War II . France is a founding member of the EU and its main driver, along with former rival Germany.

Financial markets appear jittery over a possible Frexit, but Le Pen’s team is downplaying possible apocalyptic scenarios and arguing that the euro is headed for an inevitable break-up in any event. If Ms Le Pen or Mr Melenchon take a spot in the runoff from either of the more centrist candidates, it will be seen as another major triumph for the wave of anti-establishment populism reflected in the choices for Brexit and for Donald Trump. Mr Trump tweeted that the latest terrorist atrocity would have a big effect on the election outcome, claiming: The people of France will not take much more of this.

Many French workers who have lost out through globalisation have expressed discontent at the established parties and are attracted by the promise of a change from the status quo, whether from the far-right or the far-left. Both Mr Macron and Mr Fillon are committed to European unity and have pledged to reform employment laws, with Mr Macron claiming he will counteract the protectionist policies of Mr Trump. In common with Mr Trump and his “put America first” mantra, Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon have blamed free trade pacts for killing French jobs and have pledged to renegotiate them.

The count will begin on Sunday evening when polls have closed across mainland France.

Additional reporting from agencies

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AfD: No-fly zone and security hiked for German anti-immigration party’s conference in Cologne

A no-fly zone is being enforced for four days over the German city of Cologne 1in a huge security crackdown for an anti-immigration party s conference. Thousands of police officers armed with tear gas and water cannons are being deployed for Alternative f r Deutschland s (AfD2) meeting, where up to 50,000 protesters are expected to greet delegates. As well as the risk of violent clashes between party supporters, demonstrators and police, a right-wing group claiming responsibility for the Dortmund bus attack threatened the gathering3.

In one of three claims for the bombing targeting the Borussia Dortmund football team, an anonymous email sent to a German newspaper said the attack was the last warning before coloured blood will flow on 22 April. The message, which included references to Adolf Hitler and railed against multiculturalism, was believed to be a threat against left-wing demonstrations on Saturday against the AfD s perceived racism, xenophobia and neo-Nazi links. Supporters of the anti-Islam Pegida group and anti-fascist protesters have repeatedly clashed,4 while there have been more than a thousand attacks on refugee accommodation as hate crimes rise.

A government report warned of rising political violence 5from both the left and right wing since the start of the refugee crisis. Police use a water cannon during a protest march by supporters of anti-immigration right-wing movement Pegida in Cologne on 9 January 2016 (Reuters)

The German interior ministry said 39,000 recorded incidents in 2015 represented a new high since political crimes started being recorded separately in 2001, which it attributed mainly to a 44 per cent increase in violent crime by right-wing extremists. But the number of violent crimes committed by the left wing were even higher, rising 35 per cent to 2,246 incidents, largely directed against the police.

Officers are implementing heavy security measures over the weekend, bringing in a four-day no-fly zone over central Cologne on Thursday. North Rhine-Westphalia Police said the ban included aircraft including commercial flights, drones and models, and would be enforced by air traffic control. Exceptions will be made for German military and police aircraft, as well as the emergency services in the city, where tensions have run high at protests since mass sexual assaults on New Year s Eve 20156.

The ban will run throughout the AfD convention, which will take place on Saturday and Sunday as the party pushes to turn around sliding polls 7ahead of September s federal elections. Opinion polls show the AfD winning enough votes to enter the Bundestag for the first time, after it enjoyed unprecedented success in local elections8 on a heavily anti-immigration and Eurosceptic campaign. A dramatic decline in the number of refugees arriving in Germany has coincided with waning support, while the party has also been hit by infighting and controversies over members attitude to the Nazis.

A fresh blow was dealt on Wednesday, when the AfD s co-leader Frauke Petry said she would not lead its election campaign despite being considered a serious threat to Angela Merkel s party. Ms Petry, the international face of the party, had caused controversy among members by tabling a motion for its conference saying the AfD should be open to join future coalitions. Shunned by the German mainstream left-wing and conservative blocks, other AfD members want to be a fundamental opposition party.

Ms Petry, who is pregnant with her fifth child, denied suggestions that she had made the proposal with a view to becoming the party s top candidate.

Frauke Petry has a reputation for appearing entirely reasonable while supporting the xenophobic far right (AFP/Getty)

In order to put an end to all speculation in this regard, I am using the opportunity of this video message to clearly state that I am neither available for a lone lead candidacy nor for participation in a top team, the 41-year-old said in a video posted on Facebook. Ms Petry said she had decided not to run as it was important for the AfD to discuss issues such as her proposal on the party s future strategy which the majority of regional AfD branches oppose without being hindered by personnel questions. Analysts expect her party to struggle to find a replacement matching her public profile within the crucial coming months, and say it could be damaged by the appearance of a far-right candidate.

Ms Petry s camp wants to expel a senior party member, Bj rn H cke, for calling Berlin s Holocaust memorial a monument of shame 9and saying Germany should take a more positive attitude to its Nazi past. She managed to secure a two-thirds majority on the party executive board in favour of expelling him but the AfD s far-right wing supports Mr H cke and a party arbitration board must now decide his fate. Originally an anti-EU party, the AfD has been bolstered by attacking Ms Merkel s decision to open Germany s borders to Syrian refugees in 2015, which saw more than a million asylum seekers arrive in the country.

But opinion polls appear to show voters tiring of the message, with a Forsa survey showing the AfD winning just eight per cent of votes, leaving Ms Merkel s conservatives as the largest party block.

AfD: No-fly Zone And Security Hiked For German Anti-immigration Party's Conference In CologneReuse content10


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French election: Isis threat sparks doubling of security around Francois Fillon

Security around French 1presidential candidate Francois Fillon and his British-born wife Penelope was doubled today after an image of him appeared on an Islamic State video threatening to kill a would-be head of state. The conservative Republicans candidate was surrounded by weapons and ammunition in the photo montage put together by two terrorist suspects arrested in Marseille2 yesterday. They had pledged to murder a politician running in the election that begins with a first round on Sunday.

Mr Fillon is a fierce critic of radical Islam, and has pledged to punish anyone who takes up arms against their country by stripping them of their nationality. He was due to speak in the northern city of Lille this evening, where police sources confirmed that security had doubled around the candidate . This will mean more officers, including snipers, standing guard and increased security checks on all those attending the rally in the Grand Palais.

Mr Fillon and those closest to him, including Mrs Fillon, will be surrounded by up to 12 officers at a time, said the source. It has been a difficult campaign for the pair, who have both been indicted in a fake jobs scandal that could end up with them being imprisoned. Mrs Fillon, who is from Wales, is not guaranteed to be in Lille today .

She has given only one newspaper interview and severely limited her public appearances since the so-called Penelopegate affair broke in January. Despite this, the couple remain confident that they have a chance of becoming President and First Lady following one of the closest elections for years. British intelligence officers helped foil the Day of the Jackal -style plot by suspected Islamic State fanatics Clement Baur, 23, and Mahiedine Merabet, 29, to kill a candidate.

Their rented Marseille apartment was full of weapons and so-called Mother of Satan TATP explosives when it was raided yesterday. French Interior Ministry sources confirmed that UK officers tipped us off about Baur and Merabet, but there has been no confirmation that their specific target was Mr Fillon. The pair were detained under arrest warrants for terrorist criminal association, according to a police document.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen was due to speak in Marseille today, and security will be extremely tight for her visit too.

Polls suggest she will win through to the second round of the election where she will be defeated by independent candidate Emmanuel Macron on May 7.

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