French far-right leader refuses to endorse presidential candidate

Le pen
This story has been updated. See the note below.

PARIS -- France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen told supporters at a rally in central Paris on Tuesday that she would be "voting blank" in Sunday's presidential runoff.

Le Pen, president of the National Front, told the crowd of several thousand people she would not support either incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy or his Socialist challenger, François Hollande.

She urged the 6.4 million voters who gave the National Front nearly 18% of the April 22 first-round vote -- a record for the party -- to follow their conscience.

"I have made my choice; each of you will make yours. You are free citizens, and you should vote according to your conscience," she said at the National Front's traditional May Day rally at the statue of the party's symbolic heroine, Joan of Arc, in the Place de l'Opéra in central Paris.

"I will not give my confidence or my mandate to one or the other," she said. "Sunday, I will vote blank."

Le Pen said that neither Hollande or Sarkozy offered the change that France needed.

"There is no right or left.... They are the same faces of the same system," she said as the crowd chanted in agreement. "We are the party who will reconcile the French. We are the great party of national unity."

[Updated May 1, 11:20 a.m.: At a rival rally, Sarkozy, who is anxious to pick up votes from the anti-immigration National Front on Sunday, mentioned Joan of Arc, the French wartime Resistance movement and the country's “Christian roots.”

And in a nod to the international day honoring workers, he urged France's unions to “put down the red flag ... and serve France.”

Hollande stayed away from a union rally in Paris and held a meeting in the town of Nevers. He said the traditional holiday should not be used to “battle the unions” in France.]

France is struggling with a flagging economy and with government cutbacks brought on by the euro debt crisis. Le Pen's party blames immigrants and interference from the European Union in Brussels for many of the country's ills.

The latest opinion polls give Hollande a lead of up to 10 percentage points over Sarkozy, who is in danger of becoming the first sitting president to lose a bid for reelection in France in more than 30 years.

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-- Kim Willsher

Photo: French far-right leader Marine Le Pen addresses a rally in central Paris on Tuesday, saying she would vote for neither candidate in Sunday's presidential runoff election. Credit: Francois Mori / Associated Press.

 
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