Macron gets boost as Fillon crisis deepens

Former investment banker Emmanuel Macron has cemented his status as favourite to win the French presidency as his conservative rival, Francois Fillon, came under renewed pressure to pull out because of a deepening financial scandal.

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For the first time since the line up of candidates became clear, a poll on Friday showed Macron finishing ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the opening round. It came a day after he promised a blend of fiscal discipline and stimulus to strengthen a feeble economic recovery.

As the independent centrist’s campaign built momentum, Fillon’s camp was mired in a crisis of confidence, buffeted by a string of resignations among his close advisers and backers.

The same poll showed that if the 62-year-old stepped down and was replaced by another former prime minister, Alain Juppe, it would be Juppe who wins in the first round, with Le Pen eliminated.

A source in Juppe’s entourage said the 71-year-old – who lost to Fillon in the November primaries – was “ready to take part in the search for a solution”.

Juppe, himself convicted in 2004 for misuse of public funds, has until now ruled out a comeback. “No is no,” he tweeted last month.

Fillon this week promised to fight “to the end” despite the deepening financial scandal over his wife’s pay that could see him placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds later this month.

He has complained of judicial and media bias that amounted to a “political assassination”. Several former supporters have since deserted him, saying they cannot support him given those attacks on the judiciary.

On Friday his chief spokesman, Thierry Solere, joined their ranks along with another senior Republican, Dominique Bussereau. Solere did not say why he was quitting.

In a further blow, a source close to the UDI said the centre-right party was set to withdraw its support too.

McIlroy two ahead in Mexico despite short misses at finish

The Northern Irishman missed a four-foot par putt at the 17th hole and then horseshoed-out from three feet at the last for a six-under-par 65 at Club de Golf Chapultepec.

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“Starting the day I would have taken 65, but I feel like I could have been a few more ahead,” McIlroy told Golf Channel after posting a nine-under 133 total.

Americans Phil Mickelson (68) and Justin Thomas (66) and Englishman Ross Fisher (68) were equal second on seven-under, with world number one Dustin Johnson (66) among a trio one stroke further back.

Four-times major champion McIlroy, 27, is playing just his second event of the year, after missing six weeks due to a rib injury.

“I tried to approach this week, not with low expectations, but just to see how it went,” said the former world number one. “My body feels good, which is the most important thing I think.”

On a day when the holes seemed to have magnets, several players holed out from long range, none more spectacularly than McIlroy, whose approach at the 14th landed left of the green, but took a fortunate sideways bounce and trickled into the hole.

“I cut a little nine-iron in there, trying to take a bit of distance off it,” he said. “It’s always a bonus to hole shots like that. It’s the second shot this year I’ve holed with that nine-iron so it’s been a good club for me.”

Mickelson, meanwhile, had to call his brother Tim out of the gallery on the fourth hole when regular caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay was unable to continue due to a stomach illness.

But the 46-year-old Mickelson did not miss a beat, carding a 68 to stay near the lead.

Mickelson oozed praise about the course and the options it provided players.

“You can hit driver on every hole and with the altitude you can really try to overpower it,” he said.

“However, the trees are so thick and dense you don’t have a recovery shot, so you have to hit the fairway. You can play aggressive on some holes and conservative on others based on how you feel.”

(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Larry Fine)

NSW Police find body of boy in Murray River

The body of a five-year-old son was found in the Murray River at Moama, the police have confirmed.

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Divers discovered the body about 11.35am on Saturday.

His body is yet to be formally identified but police believe it to be that of the five-year-old son of a 27-year-old woman who is alleged to have tried to drown both her sons on Thursday.

The boy’s nine-year-old brother is in a stable condition at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

NSW Police on Saturday upgraded the charge against the 27-year-old woman to attempted murder.

The mother faces one charge of attempted murder relating to the nine-year-old and did not attend her scheduled court hearing at Deniliquin Local Court on Saturday morning.

Another charge is expected to be filed, police say. 

The 27-year-old turned herself in to police in Echuca, on the NSW-Victoria border, on Thursday night after she was apparently attacked by a dog at the scene of the incident.

The woman’s older son, aged nine, was also mauled and was taken to hospital but authorities spent Friday scouring the river for the younger boy, aged five, but couldn’t find him.

Victorian Emergency services personnel search the Murray River at Moana for missing five-year-old.AAP

Police divers scouring the river will be assisted by Marine Rescue NSW, Echuca Moama Search and Rescue and the SES on Saturday.

The boy’s mother was released from jail a month ago.

NSW police have said further charges relating to the five-year-old will depend on the result of the search.

The nine-year-old son is in hospital in Melbourne after also suffering serious dog bites on Thursday evening.

Fairfax Media reports the woman appeared via video-link in a Bendigo court on Friday where a detective said she’d “made full admissions about her role and told police of her ‘intention to kill both children'”.

The court also heard she had allegedly told witnesses she “had to drown my babies”.

WA election: Party denies using ‘fake’ independents

The Flux Party is standing by its decision to run 26 upper house independent candidates who will all preference it in next weekend’s WA state election.

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The new micro party says it’s being “innovative and pragmatic” in using the electoral system to maximise its result and denies accusations it’s using “fake” independents.

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The key concept driving the strategy is that independents’ names will appear “above the line” on the upper house ballot paper.

“Considering that most people vote above the line, it’s an opportunity to capture more votes,” Flux campaign manager Daithi Gleeson told AAP.

He is unapologetic about the tactic, saying its for a “noble” purpose – to make Australian democracy better.

“We need to work within the system that we have to bring about the system that we want to have,” he said.

Competing against major parties who spend millions on advertising, Mr Gleeson said the Flux Party is using the mechanisms available.

Flux will also run 24 candidates under the actual Flux name across both the lower and upper houses.

Mr Gleeson is himself a Flux Party upper house candidate for the state’s southwest region.

Under the party’s unique tech-savvy model, representatives vote on legislation only as directed by a majority of Flux participants, who make their views known via a Flux phone app.

“There’s a lot of people who are really inspired and motivated by what we’re doing,” Mr Gleeson said.

The Flux Party doesn’t have a policy platform yet because it will be formed on a case by case basis by app users, as legislation comes before parliament.

Mr Gleeson said he is optimistic the party will win some seats in the March 11 election.

Pies stay alive with one-point AFLW win

Collingwood have kept their AFL Women’s finals hopes alive with a hard fought one-point victory over Fremantle in hot conditions at Rushton Park.

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With just one win from their opening four games, Collingwood had to win to remain in the finals race with two matches remaining.

They led by two goals when Jess Cameron scored a major just before half-time but two quick goals from Fremantle to open the second half set up a thrilling finish.

The Dockers dominated the final term as the temperature surpassed 30 degrees celsius but could only manage five behinds as Collingwood held on to win 5.2 (32) to 4.7 (31).

Collingwood star Moana Hope was held to just four kicks for one goal and one behind by Fremantle’s Tayla Bresland, but she did take a match-saving mark at half-back in the dying stages.

Nicola Stevens racked up 18 possessions and six marks for Collingwood with Melissa Kuys gathering 17 disposals, Jess Cameron 12 and Alicia Eva 12.

Lara Filocamo had 21 disposals for the Dockers, Dana Hooker 20 and Gemma Houghton 15.

Collingwood coach Wayne Siekman was relieved to come away with the win by a solitary point to keep his team’s hopes of a berth in the grand final alive.

“It’s always good to win a game of footy, especially to be the first Victorian side to travel interstate and win. That’s a good little moment,” Siekman said.

“It was a good learning experience for us. As the game went on you could see we were fatiguing and getting tired more than likely because of the heat but the road trip came into that a little bit too.”

Fremantle coach Michelle Cowan couldn’t fault her team’s effort but couldn’t hide her disappointment.

“We certainly had our chances. We had 32 inside 50s to 14 and had our opportunities throughout the whole game,” Cowan said.

“I’m devastated for the girls who have worked really hard and came out here to compete.

“I thought we played some really good footy but unfortunately were just off the result that we wanted.”

Fremantle will chase their first win of the season on Friday night against Carlton at Domain Stadium while Collingwood takes on the Greater Western Sydney Giants at Olympic Park Oval on Sunday, March 12.

El Salvador zoo in hot water over false hippo death account

Gustavito, a 15-year-old hippopotamus who had been in the National Zoological Park in eastern San Salvador almost all his life, died February 26 after suffering for days.

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The government, giving information from the zoo, said the hippo had been stabbed and beaten by unidentified assailants four days earlier, resulting in internal bleeding.

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That account triggered shock and revulsion in the Central American nation and was relayed in international media reports.

But the autopsy revealed no puncture marks in the animal’s 2.5-centimeter (1-inch) thick skin, state prosecutor Mario Salazar revealed on Thursday.

Instead a detailed forensic examination showed Gustavito had apparently died from pulmonary hemorrhaging – acute bleeding from the lung.

The culture minister, Silvia Elena Regalado, said that in itself did not rule out an attack on the hippo, which she said could have died from the resulting stress.

But a workers’ union in her department had said that the hippopotamus had been ill for 17 days before its death, and alleged that authorities had not properly followed up on the matter.

The head of the environmental activists’ group UNES, Mauricio Sermeno, said the initial account of a deadly attack on the big hippo “was something unbelievable.”

The government should “publicly apologize and give the true version of the death,” he said.

He also advised against closing the zoo, as some critics have called for in the wake of the hippo’s demise.

“The zoo is in a precarious position, with insufficient resources,” Sermeno said. “What could be done is to restructure the park and give it more support so it can maintain the species” he said.

Stone defends Knights’ actions on McManus

Former Newcastle coach Rick Stone has defended the club’s handling of James McManus’s concussions throughout his NRL career, saying he holds no fear of any potential lawsuit.

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McManus sent shock waves through the game last week after declaring his intention to sue the Knights over their handling of his head knocks during a career that ended prematurely in 2015.

The former Knights winger was knocked out in what turned out to be his final game – a 52-6 round-20 thrashing at the hands of South Sydney – before medically retiring early last year.

Coincidentally, the match was also Stone’s last in charge of the club before he was sacked for poor results, but it had nothing to do with McManus’s injury concerns.

“To be honest, I don’t even remember seeing the incident. It was an off-the-ball incident, it came down from the bench, who said James is not playing and he was off the field,” Stone told AAP.

“I’m really comfortable as a coach in my whole time at the Knights that we treated our players with the utmost respect and caution when it come to head injuries.

“I don’t know any other way to be honest.”

But Stone did reveal that McManus, who made his debut when Stone was an assistant to Brian Smith in 2007, had previously confided in him about his ongoing concussion concerns.

Stone conceded there may have been incidents during McManus’s career he wasn’t aware of.

“Me and James have been good mates for a long time. When I first got to the Knights, he was just breaking into reserve grade coming out of (under)-20s,” he said.

“He’s a really good fella, champion player, probably sometimes too brave for his own good. He would put his head where it might get hurt, it was always a tough part of the game.

“We have spoken about (his concerns), whether it was spoken about after the fact or during the fact. But I’m really comfortable that we protected James as much as we could’ve.

“I’m not quite sure if there’s something that I wasn’t privy to, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m more than comfortable.”

Currently the head coach of Huddersfield in the Super League, Stone insists the Knights were one of the NRL’s leaders in their approach towards concussions during his tenure.

He pointed to the club’s relationship with renowned neurosurgeon Chris Levi at John Hunter Hospital, where every player who had copped a blow to the head was treated post-match.

He questioned whether McManus had a real case to sue the club.

“Look, I’m not exactly sure where it’s going to get to. I’m supportive of the NRL and how they’ve managed it over the last couple of years,” he said.

“They’ve gotten on the front foot and really been stringent with the head knock laws and they’ve challenged every club to manage our players with some integrity and honesty.

“In Newcastle, we’ve got a world leading neurosurgeon in Chris Levi who’s come out of John Hunter Hospital. We’re at a clinic every Monday for anyone who had any form of concussion.

“We believe we were as rigid as anyone in the game, and particularly supportive of a bloke like Levi who was not just a national voice, but a worldwide one on this particular matter.”

Police want Soccer brawlers banned

Police investigating a large Sydney park brawl before Sydney FC’s A-League match against Melbourne Victory intend to charge more people and have them banned from games.

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Four Victorian men have so far been charged over the Ward Park brawl at Surry Hills on Friday, which involved around 30 people and allegedly the use of road works equipment as weapons.

Superintendent Allan Sicard said the charged men were part of a group of 15 people in the Allianz Stadium stands identified as possibly being linked to the incident.

“We are working closely with the A-league and Sydney Cricket Ground Trust to identify who these other people are,” he told reporters on Saturday. “With the intent of pursuing criminal charges and also with the intent of banning them from future A-League games.”

A Football Federation Australia spokesperson said the group would consider its own action including whether people should be put through the banning process.

Sup Sicard said the charged men supported the one team but it’s thought fans from both sides were involved in the fight.

The three 18-year-olds and one 19-year-old arrested at the game after video analysis was used were granted conditional bail to appear in court at various dates in April.

A 24-year-old man, who was seated with the four charged, was searched and found to be in possession of a small amount of ecstasy.

He was given a court attendance notice for possession of a prohibited drug.

Sup Sicard said there was no violence during the game and that the alleged brawlers represented a “small group” of fans that wanted to make trouble.

The behaviour was “totally unacceptable for any street, any town, any community”, he said.

Obama urged to run for president of France

“Oui on peut!”

The slogan on posters in Paris streets translates as “Yes We Can!”

Heard that before?

The people behind the campaign are urging former US President Barack Obama to join the French presidential race.

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Their online petition has already attracted more than 45,000 signatures in 10 days and they hope to reach a million supporters by March 15.

With the build-up to the April-May presidential election so far dominated by the corruption investigation targeting conservative Francois Fillon, organisers say they want to inject a dose of humour in the campaign.

The whole thing started as a big joke between friends, one of the organisers said. He identified himself only as “Antoine”, declining to give his real name because the posters have been put up illegally and he feared a fine.

There have been reports that the former President his daughter Malia have been seen at the theatre.AAP

Antoine, who spoke to the AP in Paris with his face covered by a cut-out mask of Obama, said that he and his friends decided on the campaign over a drink, after realising they didn’t know for whom they would vote.

Antoine said he had printing 500 posters. The team has also had mugs and T-shirts made with the image of Obama, which they are selling on their website.

They say the profits will go to a scholarship fund for students from poor neighbourhoods attending classes at Sciences Politiques, one of France’s most prestigious universities.

Though widely popular in France, Obama has no chance of success. He is not French and has no right to take part in the race.

Sarah Wachter, an American who has lived in France since 1999, sees the petition as a positive sign for France.

“People want change but they want the right kind of change. Change that is inclusive, change that is human but change that is also open to the world and that is a very delicate balance to strike,” she said. “But I think that Obama has done that in the United States.”

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Blues hold off Dogs to win AFLW thriller

Carlton kept their slim AFL Women’s grand final hopes alive with a thrilling one-goal win over the fast-finishing Western Bulldogs on Saturday.

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The Blues held an imposing 25-point lead early in the last quarter but were forced to defend grimly in the dying seconds to hang on for the 8.6 (54) to 7.6 (48) win.

A 6,833-strong crowd at Princes Park witnessed the highest-scoring game of the AFLW season, with Darcy Vescio (three goals) and Brianna Davey (16 possessions) starring.

Davey earned the praise of coach Damien Keeping after she overcame a back injury to play a key role in the frantic final stages of the game.

“She was incredible… to stand up under pressure is what she does really well time and time again,” Keeping said.

“She’s managed herself really professionally throughout the week to get to a point where she was able to have a real impact today.

“Her influence over her teammates is really positive … her professionalism has really rubbed off on the group.”

Carlton leapfrogged Melbourne into third spot on the ladder behind unbeaten sides Adelaide and Brisbane with the win.

The Blues trailed by five points at the first break but booted five of the next six goals to open up what looked to be a match-winning 19-point advantage at three-quarter time.

Ellie Blackburn was thrown up forward and booted three goals for the Dogs, while Emma Kearney was strong through the middle with a game-high 18 disposals.

Both were important late when the visitors kicked three unanswered goals to set up the thrilling finale.

“Our girls, to their credit, were amazing in that last quarter,” coach Paul Groves said.

“To really dig deep on a hot day against quality opposition.

“We can see what we’re trying to do and will come out fairly positive from it.”

The Bulldogs, who were without star skipper Katie Brennan for the third successive week, have now lost four games in a row.

Carlton will travel to Perth to take on Fremantle in round six, while the Dogs head north for a clash with the Lions.