Le Pen vows 'France first' at campaign launch

France's Marine Le Pen formally launched her presidential campaign this weekend and traded barbs with Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate catapulted into the lead.
Head of the French far-right party Front national (FN) and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen gives a speech, on Feb 5, 2017, as part of a two-day political rally to kick off the presidential campaign of the FN presidential candidate.
Head of the French far-right party Front national (FN) and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen gives a speech, on Feb 5, 2017, as part of a two-day political rally to kick off the presidential campaign of the FN presidential candidate. PHOTO: AFP

LYON (AFP) - Far-right leader Marine Le Pen vowed Sunday (Feb 5) she would be a president who puts France first as she formally launched a campaign echoing many of the themes that propelled Donald Trump to the White House.

In a speech in Lyon, the National Front (FN) leader attacked "mass immigration", globalisation and "Islamic fundamentalism" and said she wanted a France "which owes nothing to anyone".

She praised Britain for choosing to leave the European Union and urged the French to emulate Trump voters "who put their own national interests first".

"We will be all about the local, not the global," Le Pen said to cheers from a crowd of around 3,000 people.

Polls have shown for months that 48-year-old Le Pen will win enough votes in the first round of the election on April 23 to reach the runoff, but they currently show that she will be defeated in the second round on May 7.

With former investment banker Emmanuel Macron appearing increasingly likely to be her ultimate opponent, Le Pen told the Lyon crowd that "faced with the cash-rich rightwing and the cash-rich leftwing, only I am the candidate of the people".

It was also a reference to the previous frontrunner in the presidential race, conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who is embroiled in revelations his wife drew hundreds of thousands of euros in salary as his parliamentary assistant but never actually worked.

The claims have left 62-year-old Fillon struggling to remain a candidate.

An incident at the Louvre museum in Paris on Friday (Feb 3), where a man wielding two machetes and shouting "Allah Akbar" (God is greatest) was shot after attacking a group of soldiers, has shifted the focus onto Le Pen's preferred subjects of security, Islam and immigration.

"We will not expect the French people to get used to living with terrorism," she said, promising a massive increase in spending on law and order.

Speaking in the city where she once compared the sight of Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation, Le Pen said: "We do not want to live under the tyranny of fundamentalism."

She promised a "zero tolerance" approach to crime with the recruitment of 15,000 extra police, focusing particular attention on the troubled suburbs of many French cities.

Foreigners who commit crimes will be drummed out of France, she said.

Turning to the EU, she said she wanted to "release France from the tyranny" of Brussels. If the other members of the bloc refused to accept large-scale reforms, she vowed to call a referendum on membership within six months of taking office.

On Saturday (Feb 4), Le Pen published a list of 144 "commitments" built around putting France first.

But there were empty seats in the hall where she spoke, in contrast to a packed venue in the same city on Saturday where 39-year-old Macron addressed 8,000 supporters with thousands more watching on a giant screen outside.

The FN's influential deputy leader Florian Philippot insisted that the momentum was with Le Pen and not the fast-rising Macron.

"People are waking up. They see Brexit, they see Trump and they're saying to themselves: 'It's worth going to vote'," he said before her speech.

One of Le Pen's advisors conceded however on Saturday that "on paper", Macron currently had the best chance of winning a head-to-head duel.

A former economy minister under unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande, Macron is also running as a candidate outside the political establishment and has founded his own movement, En Marche (On The Move).

Macron said Le Pen "did not speak in the name of the people" and he took aim at nepotism in the FN, which was founded by her father, anti-Semitic former paratrooper Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Marine's 27-year-old niece, the hardline Marion Marechal-Le Pen, is also a senior figure in the party.