Basque protests forced French President Nicolas Sarkozy to take his election campaign into a local bar Thursday. But while sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, they're not always glad you came.
Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign trail appearance in southern France on Thursday backfired when he was confronted by a crowd of hundreds of people hurling abuse at the under-pressure president. Sarkozy was forced to take shelter in a nearby bar for about an hour, where he told journalists that the crowd's "thuggish behavior" was the work of his Socialist presidential opponent Francois Hollande.
Later that evening, from the relative safety of the EU leaders' summit in Brussels, Sarkozy called on Hollande to condemn the public demonstration. The Socialist candidate, who narrowly leads Sarkozy in the polls ahead of an election that is likely to take place over two rounds of voting in April and then May, called on his supporters to be "actors of hope," not "advocates of vindictiveness" in a Thursday evening speech, though he did not specifically mention the incident in Bayonne.
Police in the Basque region, where some citizens are seeking independence from France, kept the protesters at bay while Sarkozy sheltered in the Bar du Palais in Bayonne. Some of them later threw eggs at the hastily erected riot barrier outside the bar. Sarkozy said the protesters were a combination of Basque separatists and Socialist supporters.
"If this is the concept of democracy: that Socialists associate with Basque separatists - if this is the country they have in mind, it doesn't make you want to go there," he said once safe inside the cafe, where he managed to meet some more friendly French citizens.
Polls suggest that the race for the French presidency is currently too close to call. According to figures published on Thursday by IFOP, Hollande leads the way with 28.5 percent of public support, just ahead of Sarkozy on 27 percent, with far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in third on 17 percent. The top two candidates from April's first round of polling will lock horns in a May runoff vote.
msh/bk (AFP, AP, dpa)