LYON • France's far-right party leader Marine Le Pen yesterday told thousands of flag-waving supporters chanting "This is our country!" that she alone would protect them from Islamic fundamentalism and globalisation if elected president in May.
Buoyed by anti-immigrant Mr Donald Trump's victory in the United States presidential election and Britons' vote to leave the European Union, Ms Le Pen's anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front (FN) hopes for similar populist momentum in France.
"What is at stake in this election... is whether France can still be a free nation," Ms Le Pen told supporters at her campaign launch rally. "The divide is not between the left and right anymore but between patriots and globalists!"
The FN leader last Saturday published 144 "commitments" built around putting France first, reclaiming sovereignty from the European Union and clamping down on immigration.
The 48-year-old is convinced the Trump victory and the Brexit vote in Britain point to the return of nationalism. Recent domestic events in France's unpredictable election race could also help her.
The presidential race was jolted after conservative front runner Francois Fillon was embroiled in reports that his wife drew hundreds of thousands of euros in salary as his parliamentary assistant amid doubts that she actually worked.
LE PEN'S ELECTION PLEDGES
• Re-negotiate European Union membership terms within six months or go for "Frexit"
• Aim for no more euro, border- free area, EU budget rules and pre-eminence of EU law
• Reserve certain rights to only French citizens, including education rights
• Tax employers who hire foreigners
• Hire 15,000 police officers and build jails for another 40,000 inmates
• Expel convicted foreigners and foreigners monitored by intelligence services for links with radical Islam
• Close all mosques suspected of having links with radical Islam
• Leave Nato's integrated command and boost defence spending
• Make it impossible for undocumented migrants to legalise their stay in France
• Curb asylum to people who made requests abroad, in French consulates
• Make it harder for immigrants to become French citizens; children of immigrants born in France will no longer be given citizenship
• Cap migration at 10,000 people a year
• Target gross domestic product growth of 2 per cent by 2018
• Cut household tax, increase welfare benefits - paid for by savings from fighting social security fraud and tax evasion, changing EU policy, new migration policy and administrative reform.
• Keep working week to 35 hours; make overtime tax-free
And an incident at the Louvre museum last Friday, where a man with machetes was shot after attacking some soldiers, has shifted the focus to Ms Le Pen's preferred subjects of security, Islam and immigration.
Polls have indicated for months that she will win enough votes on April 23 to reach the second-round run-off on May 7, but they currently suggest that a mainstream candidate will beat her at that stage.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
What is at stake in this election... is whether France can still be a free nation. The divide is not between the left and right anymore but between patriots and globalists!
MS LE PEN, to supporters at her campaign launch rally yesterday.
She addressed supporters at 1400 GMT (10pm Singapore time) in the city where she once compared the sight of Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.
Sources in her party say up to 10,000 people were expected, although the room was only half-full last Saturday, the rally's first day.
The election had long been seen as a two-horse race between Ms Le Pen and Mr Fillon, but his expenses scandal has further boosted the chances of 39-year-old centrist independent Emmanuel Macron.
"On paper, he has the strongest chance of winning," a Le Pen adviser conceded last Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A former economy minister under unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande, Mr Macron is also running as a candidate outside the political establishment and has founded his own movement, En Marche (On the Move). Last Saturday, the pro-European moderate packed a 8,000-capacity venue in Lyon; thousands more watched on a screen outside. He said Ms Le Pen "did not speak in the name of the people", and he took aim at nepotism in FN, founded by her father, anti-Semitic former paratrooper Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Her "commitments" to the nation include a pledge to hold a referendum soon after taking power, on whether France should remain in the EU. She favours a radically overhauled bloc that would repatriate almost all powers over economic policy, currencies and border control to member states.
She also proposes "zero tolerance" of crime, 15,000 extra police officers, imposing higher taxes on foreign workers and imports, and freeing small firms from red tape.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE