French far-right presidential candidates fight for limelight

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French far-tight leader Marine Le Pen delivers her speech during a campaign rally, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022 in Reims, eastern France. France's dueling far-right presidential candidates Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen are holding back-to-back campaign rallies Saturday, trying to steal each other's thunder and keep their anti-immigration, anti-Islam agenda front-and-center in the race for the April presidential election. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS – France’s dueling far-right presidential candidates held back-to-back campaign rallies Saturday, trying to steal each other’s thunder and keep their nationalist, anti-immigration agenda front and center in the race for April's presidential election.

Marine Le Pen, who came in second in the 2017 presidential election, was holding her first major campaign event in the city of Reims in Champagne country. She presented her platform to thousands of supporters and tried to reinvigorate her base after some high-profile defections to the campaign of rival Eric Zemmour.

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Zemmour, a pundit and provocateur who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech, held a rally in the northern city of Lille on the same day, apparently to try to draw attention away from Le Pen. Some protesters outside the rally skirmished with police.

Both candidates are hoping to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in the election on April 10, which also has a presidential runoff between the top two contenders on April 24. Macron has a campaign team in place but has yet to officially declare his candidacy. A centrist, he has shifted to the right amid growing support for conservative and far-right policies, notably on security and immigration.

Both Le Pen and Zemmour want tougher rules on immigration, including less state aid for migrants. Both oppose wind farms and want more support for nuclear energy, which currently fuels some 70% of France's electricity needs.

Le Pen, a member of parliament, has been working for a decade to clean up the image of her National Rally party and build up its political base, to make it more palatable to a broader swath of voters and improve her chances at the presidency.

She blasted Macron for his “reckless policies” and immigration management during her speech Saturday but for the most part stayed clear of insults.

“It’s up to the French people to decide who gets to live in France and who becomes a citizen,” Le Pen said, adding that immigrants “must submit to this country’s values” and not the other way around.

Zemmour has no political experience but is widely known for his role as a TV commentator, which has allowed him to spread his extreme views. His program includes banning women from wearing Muslim headscarves in public and prohibiting construction of any “imposing” mosques or minarets.

In Saturday's address, Zemmour stuck to familiar themes: He promised to “put an end to asylum applications filed on our soil” and to wrest France from what he said was “Islamization.”

“There are not many factories left in this city, but there are many mosques,” Zemmour claimed. “We don’t see many skirts anymore, but we see many niqabs.” Zemmour often singles out Muslims for criticism and routinely exaggerates their presence and power in France.

He was convicted last month of inciting racial hatred against underage migrants. Zemmour previously was convicted of incitement to racial hatred after justifying discrimination against Black and Arab people in 2010, and of incitement to religious hatred for anti-Islam comments in 2016.

Polls suggest that Macron is favored to win a second term, but the race is close and unpredictable. At this stage, either Le Pen or Valerie Pecresse from the mainstream conservative Republicans party appear most likely to reach a runoff against Macron.

Zemmour has shaken up the race and rattled Le Pen’s camp, but lags behind her in the polls. One outstanding question is whether Le Pen’s niece, former lawmaker Marion Marechal, will throw her support to Zemmour instead.

The French left, meanwhile, is deeply divided, with multiple candidates vying for the presidency but none expected to have a chance of reaching the presidential runoff.

Other candidates include far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, Greens candidate Yannick Jadot, Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and former Justice Minister and anti-racism campaigner Christiane Taubira.

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