Le Pen goes back to her roots on immigration as poll countdown begins

Facing a slight slump in opinion polls just one week before the first-round of France’s presidential election, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has returned to her party’s core issues: immigration and security.

Alain Jocard, AFP | French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen gives a campaign speech in Paris on April 17, 2017

With only five days left before the first round on April 23 (the top two in the first round go through to the decisive second round on May 7), and with opinion polls forecasting a tight race that is barely possible to predict, Le Pen on Monday re-focused her campaign on immigration.

It is familiar territory for the leader of the National Front (FN), a party which has campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform for over 40 years.

For months Le Pen has been among the frontrunners, and her campaign seemed to be already planning ahead to the critical second round. But amid fresh concerns she could be squeezed out in the first round, her team is now attempting a mini re-launch appealing directly to the FN’s traditional voter base.

Le Pen made immigration the clear focal point of her big campaign speech in the French capital on Monday evening. Addressing around 5,000 supporters at the Zénith arena in the north-east of Paris, she emphasised her strong position by pledging to immediately introduce a moratorium on legal immigration of non-EU citizens if elected president. Le Pen, who also serves as a Member of the European Parliament, said the measure was necessary to stop the “crazy” and “uncontrolled” immigration that was “dragging France down”.

Us vs Them

She said a moratorium would thereby allow French authorities to finally "take stock of the situation, before putting in place new rules and regulations.”

She promised to make immigration laws under her administration “more drastic, more reasonable, more humane and more manageable,” earning enthusiastic applause from her loyal supporters, who chanted: “France for the French!”

Further playing to her grassroots support – and in a direct jab at existing EU treaties – Le Pen told the crowd on two separate occasions that she would re-establish French border controls “the day after I take office”. In her campaign manifesto, the far right leader has pledged to reduce legal migration to only 10,000 entries per year, arguing that current levels have become “oppressive” for many French citizens.

“[Immigration] is not one of France’s strengths, it’s creating a national emergency. It only benefits my opponents, like [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon, [Benoit] Hamon or [Emmanuel] Macron,” she declared on Monday evening, in reference to three of her presidential rivals.

Speaking on French radio on Tuesday morning, Le Pen said she stood by her call for a moratorium on all immigration, but nevertheless clarified that international university students would not be affected.

Campaign stumble

The new and drastic proposal appears to be aimed at focusing the public debate around the FN’s signature issue in the final stretch, and it is a strategy the party has exploited in the past.

A month before France’s 2015 regional election, Le Pen called on all asylum seekers to be kicked out at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis. During the last presidential election, in 2012, she sparked a heated debate about the ritual slaughter of livestock by certain religions only weeks before the vote.

Le Pen might have avoided this now familiar approach, but her once comfortable lead has all but evaporated. Over recent weeks, her numbers have fallen by approximately four points according to the Huffington Post. Meanwhile, the conservative nominee François Fillon and staunch leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have seen an uptick in their support. Officially, Le Pen’s campaign remains confident.

“Marine will undoubtedly finish on top in the first round of the presidential elections. Our real challenge is to claim the largest possible majority,” campaign spokesman David Rachline told reporters on Monday. However, the mere fact he even mentioned the possibility she would not qualify for the second round appears to signal there are some jitters at FN headquarters.

Tough talk

Over the years, the far-right leader has excelled at garnering media attention by baiting political opponents with provocative remarks. But during the current campaign Le Pen has often appeared to be almost raging by herself in a windowless room. Even her most shocking statements have failed to arouse the debate or indignation they did previously.
“There is a deliberate effort by our opponents to ignore her,” Jérôme Rivière, one of Le Pen’s top campaign advisers, agreed.

“None of the candidates has been able to impose their issue, they have all avoided each other. Marine has spoken of France as a ‘university of jihadism’, and no one bats an eyelash. That’s a very strong position,” he added as way of example.

In Paris on Monday, Le Pen doubled down, as if to be sure the other players would pay attention, directly linking immigration with the issue of terrorism.

“If I was president, there would have been no Mohamed Merah, who was naturalised French,” Le Pen said in reference to the Toulouse gunman who killed three French soldiers, as well as two Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher, in 2012. “If I was president, there would have been no migrant terrorists at the Bataclan and Stade de France,” she added, alluding to the November 2015 Paris attack.

“Fear is going to change sides, respect and peace will return,” she declared.
It’s the kind of tough talk that delights her FN loyalists, but that will make it nearly impossible for her to increase her support base if she clears the first round on Sunday.

This article originally appeared in French in daily Le Monde.

Article by Olivier Faye - Le Monde
Translated by Joseph Bamat - FRANCE 24

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