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France's Macron pays tribute to Moroccan drowned after 1995 Le Pen rally

PARIS (Reuters) - French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron on Monday paid homage to a young Moroccan man who drowned in the Seine 22 years ago after being pushed into the river by skinheads on the fringes of the National Front’s traditional May Day rally.

In an anniversary gesture clearly aimed at painting the National Front (FN) as extremist a week before he faces its candidate Marine Le Pen in a run-off vote for the presidency, Macron observed a minute’s silence on the riverbank.

“We must never forget what happened,” Macron told reporters at the site, a few steps away from the Louvre museum, where he laid a wreath of white flowers in front of a plaque in memory of the victim, Brahim Bouarram.

Macron also relaunched his attack on comments last month from Le Pen, who last week said the French state was not responsible for a mass arrest of Jews in Paris during World War Two.

“I shall never forget, and I will fight up until the very last second not only against her programme but also her idea of what constitutes democracy and the French Republic” said Macron.

In between the two rounds of the 1995 presidential election, Bouarram, a 29-year old father of two, was thrown into the Seine by a group of skinheads leaving a May Day rally held nearby in Paris by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was party leader at the time.

Macron’s tribute, in the presence of Bouarram’s son Said, took place just as Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine, addressed this year’s FN May Day rally near the statue of national heroine, Joan of Arc, a few hundred meters away.

In 1995, the skinheads leaving Le Pen senior’s parade pushed Bouarram, who could not swim, into the river and watched him struggle to stay afloat in the swift-flowing current, before then leaving the scene. One was sentenced to an eight-year jail sentence in 1998 and three others to five-year terms.

The tribute to Bouarram was the latest attempt by Macron, a pro-Europe centrist, to remind voters of what he and other critics see as the National Front’s racist and anti-Semitic legacy.

He visited a Holocaust memorial in Paris on Sunday and a village burned down by the Nazis in World War Two last week.

The FN has cried foul at Macron’s tactics. The niece of Marine Le Pen, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, said on Sunday that he was using death and deportations for political ends and indulging in “World War Two blackmail”.

Jean-Marie Le Pen told his supporters on Monday: “Emmanuel Macron is doing a tour of graveyards. It’s a bad sign for him.”

Marine Le Pen has sought to cleanse the National Front’s image of xenophobic and anti-semitic associations and make it more palatable to a broader electorate.

The 88-year old former paratrooper was expelled from the party’s management but remains the party’s honorary president and has lent money to his daughter’s campaign.

“I have no contacts with him anymore, I’m not responsible for his misconduct, for his unacceptable comments,” Marine Le Pen said on Sunday.

Jean-Marie Le Pen has denied any connection with Bouarram’s death and called it a provocation staged to discredit his movement. He also called it a common criminal “incident” of the kind he said occurred daily in heavily populated cities.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Callus