Marine Le Pen has stepped up her anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric as she seeks to mobilise her far-right party’s base in the final days of campaigning before the first round of voting in a knife-edge French presidential election.
The National Front party leader warned over the Easter weekend that French “civilisation” was under threat as she pledged to suspend all legal immigration and protect the French way of life, toning down her plan to take France out of the euro.
“Give us France back, damn it!” the far-right candidate demanded at a rally in Paris on Monday night as her supporters chanted: “This is our home!”
In comments clearly aimed at France’s Muslim population, she said: “In France, we drink wine whenever we want. In France we do not force women to wear the veil because they are impure . . . In France, we get to decide who deserves to become French.”
With voters going to the polls on Sunday, Ms Le Pen is seeking to move her party’s focus away from her flagship policy of exiting the euro, an unpopular measure among the wider electorate. Instead, she is to trying to capitalise on angst about French identity and the fear of a vanishing French way of life. It is the trademark style of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN’s founder and Ms Le Pen’s father, but concerns about identity have crept from the fringes into the mainstream conservative electorate.
Ms Le Pen’s lead in the opinion polls has slipped slightly in recent days and she is on about 23 per cent, according to the FT’s poll tracker.
Her speech on Monday showed she is aiming chiefly at centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, whom polls suggest she will face in the second round, notes Luc Rouban, a professor at Sciences Po Cevipof.
Mr Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister and ex-Rothschild banker, has praised France’s cultural and ethnic diversity and called for it to embrace globalisation.
Identity politics also allows Ms Le Pen to differentiate herself from far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose anti-capitalist, anti-EU economic platform has similarities with hers. Mr Mélenchon’s poll surge has been the highlight of the closing stages of the first-round campaign.
Finally, Ms Le Pen is seeking to appeal to a confused conservative electorate troubled by the ill-fated campaign of their scandal-stricken candidate, François Fillon, who is polling neck and neck with Mr Mélenchon.
“Rejection of immigration is what defines Marine Le Pen and her electorate,” Prof Rouban says. “It’s a tactical move. By reasserting this line so close to the first round, she is giving reassurances to her party base, while also clearly marking her difference with her rivals.”
She may also be trying to keep Mr Mélenchon at bay, Mr Rouban adds, even though the hard-left politician’s surge to about 19 per cent of the votes in polls has mostly been the result of the collapse of Socialist party nominee Benoît Hamon, who is polling below 10 per cent.
Notebook: De Gaulle’s shadow stalks the French election
Markets: Indicators to watch in France’s presidential election
News: Mélenchon barges way into tight race
On Monday evening, at the Zénith concert venue in north-eastern Paris, Ms Le Pen elaborated on a favourite rallying cry of her supporters: “This is our home”.
“This is our home, because French people feel strangers in their own country . . . because they have fewer rights than immigrants, even than illegal ones,” she told a crowd of several thousand. “The French want to live in France like Frenchmen, without being subjected to mores and laws that are not theirs . . . France has a right to its national identity, that is to say to its deepest being, it has the right to perpetuate itself.”
Evoking the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Ms Le Pen declared that her first measure as president of France would be to take back control of the country’s borders and end the Schengen arrangement, allowing borderless travel between EU states. She said that Schengen has “made our country a railway hall for all the migrants of the world”.
FN supporters seemed galvanised by their candidate’s strident rhetoric.
“It’s the first time that the Front National can win; before it was not possible,” says Alexandre, who has dual French-Lebanese nationality. “France is tired of immigration, tired of Europe, tired of being stolen by the EU, by globalisation and by the banks.”
“French identity is collapsing,” says Emilio, a 38-year-old teacher. “The French don’t recognise themselves right now. This time it’s right for the FN — it’s now or never.”
Get alerts on French presidential election when a new story is published