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Thursday, 1 March 2012

French leader holes up in bar to escape protesters

Wasif Chudhary

BAYONNE, France (AP) -- Several hundred angry protesters booed President Nicolas Sarkozy, forcing him to take refuge in a cafe protected by riot police as he campaigned Thursday in France's southwest Basque country.

Riot police surrounded the Bar du Palais in central Bayonne where Sarkozy holed up to get away from the protesters - some of them Basque nationalists, others carrying posters of rival Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.

Inside the cafe, Sarkozy denounced "the violence of a minority and their unacceptable behavior."

He remained in the cafe for about an hour, meeting with residents of Bayonne. Some of the protesters outside threw eggs toward the barrier of riot police guarding the cafe.

The conservative Sarkozy trails Hollande, the front-runner, in the two pronged April and May presidential election.

"Here, we're in France, on the territory of the French republic, and the president of the republic will go everywhere," Sarkozy said once inside the cafe. "And if that doesn't please a minority of troublemakers, too bad for them."

The narrow streets of the historic center of Bayonne, in the French Basque country, were packed with supporters and protesters following Sarkozy during his visit. Tension mounted as Basque separatists threw pieces of paper at him. They were joined by others holding portraits of Hollande and his presidential program.

"If this is the concept of democracy, that the Socialists associate with Basque separatists, if this is it, the country they have in mind, it doesn't make you want to get there," Sarkozy said to reporters inside the cafe.

Sarkozy left the cafe escorted by riot police and protected by an umbrella.

The president's campaign spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, asked Socialists to "respect the rules of democratic debate."

"It's not because you don't have ideas that you have to stop others from expressing theirs," she said.

Sarkozy declared his candidacy on Feb. 15. The latest polls show him narrowing the gap in the first round but lagging far behind in the final round. With the president now actively on the campaign trail, the debate has grown increasingly bitter with harsh denunciations by supporters on both sides.

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