Marine Le Pen has launched her presidential campaign with a pledge to hold an EU referendum, ditch the euro, withhold free healthcare from “illegal migrants” and slash immigration.
The far-right leader of the Front National (FN) is hoping to capitalise on a scandal destroying the prospects of former election favourite Francois Fillon, who is embroiled in controversy over payments made to his wife.
But she faces renewed competition from Emmanuel Macron, the former finance minister who has created his own “En Marche!” party in a bid to reach the Elysee Palace.
The majority of opinion polls currently show Ms Le Pen, 48, winning the first round of France’s presidential election on 23 April but losing the run-off vote in May.
Her supporters, buoyed by the FN’s move into the mainstream amid rising Euroscepticism, anti-immigration sentiment and terror fears, have been heartened by the shock votes for Brexit and Donald Trump.
“We were told Donald Trump would never win in the United States against the media, against the establishment, but he won... we were told Marine Le Pen would not win the presidential election, but on 7 May she will win!” Jean-Lin Lacapelle, a top FN official, told hundreds of party members at a rally on Saturday.
In 144 “commitments” published at the start of a two-day event in Lyon, Ms Le Pen proposes leaving the Eurozone, holding a referendum on EU membership, slapping taxes on imports and on the job contracts of foreigners, lowering the retirement age and increasing several welfare benefits while lowering income tax.
The heavily protectionist manifesto also proposes curbing several rights to French citizens only, while building new prisons, hiring thousands of police and leaving Nato’s integrated command.
Ms Le Pen wants to restrict universal rights including free education to French citizens, while making it harder to gain citizenship, limit migration to a net annual total of 10,000 and deport all foreign convicts and anyone under investigation for “links with radical Islam”.
“The aim of this programme is first of all to give France its freedom back and give the people a voice,” Ms Le Pen said in the introduction to the manifesto.
“This presidential election puts two opposite proposals – the 'globalist' choice backed by all my opponents... and the 'patriotic' choice which I personify.”
Despite the FN’s attempts to distance itself from its racist and anti-Semitic past – with founder and Ms Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie convicted of both – immigration remains the main draw for members.
When Franck de Lapersonne, an actor and FN supporter, told the rally that author Victor Hugo “did not learn Arabic at school and that makes me happy” he received the loudest ovation of the day, with the crowd chanting the party's slogan “on est chez nous”, meaning “this is our country”.
The FN is facing scandals over assistants in the European Parliament and investigations over Ms Le Pen’s 2012 campaign financing, but they have been largely eclipsed by the storm surrounding Mr Fillon.
The conservative candidate and former Prime Minister is facing mounting pressure from his own party to withdraw from the presidential race amid allegations he had paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros of public money for work she may not have done.
Senator Bruno Gilles, head of the Les Républicains’ influential Bouches-du-Rhone region, said members wanted a new candidate amid “Penelopegate”, as Mr Fillon maintains his wife contributed real work as his assistant.
“This scandal is doing us more damage every day, and we can't wait another two weeks,” Mr Gilles told France Bleu Provence radio. “There are presidential and legislative elections at stake and, beyond that, the survival of our political party.”
Mr Fillon is now set to place third behind Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron in the first round, with polls showing less than a third of French voters believe him to be “honest”.
On Saturday his campaign distributed 3 million leaflets entitled “Stop the Manhunt”, characterising the scandal as a left-wing conspiracy and declaring: “Enough is enough”.
Meanwhile, an estimated 16,000 supporters massed at a rally held by Mr Macron in Lyon.
The 39-year-old pro-European centrist candidate, and former investment banker, distanced himself from Francois Hollande’s Sociality Party to create his own group last year.
Additional reporting by agencies
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