France’s far-right party leader Marine Le Pen kicked off her presidential campaign on Saturday, hoping promises to shield voters from globalisation boost her chances at a time of French political turmoil.
Opinion polls see the 48-year old daughter of National Front (FN) founder Jean-Marie Le Pen topping the first round on April 23 but then losing the May 7 run-off to a mainstream candidate.
But in the most unpredictable election race France has known in decades, the FN hopes a two-day rally in Lyon, where Le Pen is spelling out her electoral platform, will help convince voters to back her.
“The aim of this programme is first of all to give France its freedom back and give the people a voice,” Le Pen said in the introduction to the manifesto.
In 144 “commitments”, Le Pen proposes leaving the euro zone, taxes on the job contracts of foreigners, lowering the retirement age and increasing several welfare benefits while lowering payroll tax for small firms and income tax.
The manifesto also foresees reserving certain rights now available to all residents, including free education, to French citizens only, hiring 15,000 police, building more prisons, curbing migration and leaving Nato’s integrated command.
Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European centrist candidate whom polls say is likely to be Le Pen’s opponent in the presidential election run-off, will also hold a rally in Lyon on Saturday to propose a radically different platform.
“This presidential election puts two opposite proposals,” Le Pen said. “The ‘globalist’ choice backed by all my opponents ... and the ‘patriotic’ choice which I personify.”
EU overhaul pledge
Buoyed by last year’s unexpected vote to take Britain out of the EU and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, the FN hopes to ride the same populist wave to victory.
“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 May 7 she will win,” Jean-Lin Lacapelle, a top FN official, told several hundred party officials and members.
If elected, Le Pen says she would immediately seek an overhaul of the European Union that would reduce it to a very loose cooperative of nations with no single currency and no border-free area. If, as is likely, France’s EU partners refuse to agree to this, she will call a referendum to leave the EU.
The electoral manifesto is short on macro-economic details and does not give any public deficit or debt targets and does not explain how a Le Pen government would balance raising welfare benefits while cutting taxes.
The FN would combine leaving the euro with unorthodox policies, including money printing, currency intervention and import taxes, Jean Messiha, who has overseen the drafting of Le Pen’s manifesto, told Reuters ahead of the rally.
While Le Pen is hoping to benefit from an unpredictable campaign that has seen the favourites drop out one after the other and that has caught up with hitherto favourite Francois Fillon, embroiled in a scandal over alleged ghost jobs for his wife, opinion polls still see her losing the second round.
And Le Pen and her party are also facing their own scandals, including one over assistants in the European Parliament and investigations over her 2012 campaign financing.
But that leaves grass-roots supporters undeterred. “We’re fighting to win the 2017 election,” said Victor Birra, the regional head of the FN youth association.