PARIS – Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said Friday she believes she can pull off a surprise victory in France's high-stakes runoff Sunday, while independent front-runner Emmanuel Macron suffered a document leak that his team called a bid to throw the vote.
In an interview with The Associated Press in the final hours of a hostile, topsy-turvy campaign, Le Pen said that win or lose, "we changed everything." She claimed an "ideological victory" for her populist, anti-immigrant worldview in an election that could change Europe's direction.
Macron's political movement said late Friday night it has been the victim of a "massive and coordinated" hacking attack that led to the leak of campaign emails and financial documents.
In a statement, the En Marche movement said it was hacked a few weeks ago, and that the leaked documents have been mixed with false documents to "seed doubt and disinformation" and destabilize Sunday's presidential runoff. Hillary Clinton's U.S. presidential campaign suffered similar leaks, and also said that authentic documents were mixed with false documents.
Fears of hacking, fake news manipulation and Russian meddling clouded the French campaign but had largely gone unrealized — until Friday's admission by Macron's campaign that it had suffered an online pirate attack.
U.S. far-right circles were abuzz with the news that Macron's campaign had been hit by a massive disclosure, but the news comes soon after a crude forgery was circulated on an online message board popular with pranksters and extremists. Wikileaks sounded a skeptical note, saying the Macron leaks might be misinformation.
The candidates stopped campaigning at midnight Friday to give voters a day of reflection before the election. It's a stark choice: Le Pen's anti-immigration, anti-European Union platform, or Macron's progressive, pro-EU stance.
Tensions marred the race right to the end.
France's presidential voting watchdog called on the Interior Ministry late Friday to look into claims by the Le Pen campaign that ballot papers are being tampered with nationwide to benefit Macron. The Le Pen campaign said electoral administrators in several regions who receive ballot papers for both candidates have found the Le Pen ballot "systematically torn up."
Earlier in the day, anti-Le Pen crowds disrupted her visit to a renowned cathedral in Reims.
The presidential campaign has been unusually bitter, with voters hurling eggs and flour, protesters clashing with police and candidates insulting each other on national television — a reflection of the widespread public disaffection with politics as usual.
Le Pen, 48, has brought her far-right National Front party, once a pariah for its racism and anti-Semitism, closer than ever to the French presidency, seizing on working-class voters' growing frustration with globalization and immigration. Even if she loses, she is likely to be a powerful opposition figure in French politics in the upcoming parliamentary election campaign.
"Even if we don't reach our goal, in any event there is a gigantic political force that is born," she told AP in her campaign headquarters. Her party "imposed the overhaul" of French politics and set the tone of the election, she said.
The 39-year-old Macron, too, played a key role in upending France's traditional political structure with his wild-card campaign.
Voters liked the idea, and chose Macron and Le Pen in the first-round vote, dumping the traditional left and right parties that have governed modern France. Le Pen said those parties have been "blackballed."
Many voters, however, don't like either Le Pen or Macron. They fear her party's racist past, while worrying that his platform would demolish worker job protections or be too much like his mentor, the deeply unpopular outgoing President Francois Hollande.
Students protested both presidential candidates Friday by blocking high schools and marching through Paris.
Le Pen, who was pelted with eggs Thursday in Brittany, was met by hecklers Friday at the Reims cathedral. She left via an unmarked door, putting her arms over her head as if to protect herself and diving into a black car.
Le Pen denounced her critics for disrupting a sacred place during her final campaign stop. The site has special meaning for her National Front party because it's the cathedral where Charles VII was crowned in the presence of Joan of Arc — the party's icon — at a time of war and division.
In the AP interview, Le Pen said she was confident she can bring the divided country together if elected.
"Yes. I want most of all to put democracy back in place ... we must re-weave the links among people." She said.
Macron would worsen divisions, she claimed.
The pro-business Macron, who topped all vote-getters in the first-round, also has been booed and heckled frequently as he visited blue-collar workers.
Violent protests erupted in Paris earlier this week against both candidates, with several police officers injured. And critics decried the bitter tone of Wednesday night's presidential debate.
Le Pen acknowledged to AP that she became angry at the debate but said she was merely channeling the mood of France.
Macron acknowledged that the French are exasperated by the government's ineffectiveness, but he dismissed Le Pen's vision of an infuriated country.
She "speaks for no one. ... Madame Le Pen exploits anger and hatred," Macron told RTL radio.
The unprecedented negativity in one of the most unpredictable and scandal-hit French presidential campaigns in recent times has turned off countless voters.
About 100 students pulled garbage bins in front of the entrance to the Lycee Colbert in northeastern Paris, with cardboard signs saying, "Neither Le Pen nor Macron, neither the fatherland nor the boss," — a reference to Le Pen's nationalist views and Macron's pro-business ties.
Students at another school, Lycee Buffon, wrote an open letter calling on the French to exercise their vote and recalling the fate of five students shot in 1943 for fighting the Nazis. Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie, has minimized the Holocaust, and her National Front party has been stained by anti-Semitism in the past.
"Even if I'm not old enough to vote, I'm concerned," the letter said. "Dear reader, you should know that Marine Le Pen's France is not the France we love. Our France is beautiful, tolerant and cosmopolitan. So go and vote on Sunday, for this France, this democracy."