France’s ultra-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has highlighted themes such as immigration and national identity to excite her supporters at a Paris rally as she leads a tight race with her three top rivals.
The Monday rally came as the country’s unpredictable presidential campaign neared its finish just a week before the first-round polls will be held to narrow the field of 11 to a May 7 runoff vote between the top two vote getters.
Le Pen is competing with independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron for the lead in polls, while hard-left rival Jean-Luc Melenchon and conservative Francois Fillon begin to close the gap.
According to the latest polls, Macron and Le Pen currently lead polls with 22 and 23 percent respectively, while Melenchon and Fillon follow behind with 19 and 21 percent, meaning that they all have a chance to reach the runoff since as many as a third of eligible voters reportedly remain undecided.
During her speech at the rally, Le Pen -- who claims France has been subjugated by the European Union and waves of immigration – described the upcoming vote as “historical.”
“What is being played next Sunday is an issue of civilization,” she said, vowing to end the borderless Schengen Treaty so France can control its frontiers and thus stop both immigration and “the terrorist threat.”
“We opened the door of the house of France to the mafia, to terrorists who quickly understood the benefits they could get from our incredible powerlessness and send their soldiers of hate among the migrant flows to hit our country in the heart,” Le pen said.
Clashes broke out between riot police and scores of opponents of Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front Party ahead of her rally, delaying its start.
Demonstrators also threw rocks at police forces, who in turn fired tear gas.
Macron, the former economy minister in the Socialist government and one-time investment banker, pledged an “open, confident, winning France” in contrast with his far-right and far-left rivals.
Melenchon, who is enjoying a late poll surge, also campaigned on a barge floating through the canals of Paris on Monday as conservative candidate Francois Fillon took his tough-on-security campaign to the southern French city of Nice, which suffered a bloody truck attack last year.
Meanwhile, Fillon’s austerity-focused campaign has been damaged by accusations that he misused taxpayer funds to pay his wife and children for government jobs that they allegedly did not perform. French investigators are probing the allegations as Fillon denies any wrongdoing.
The Socialists’ campaign has suffered from internal divisions as well as the dismal image of Socialist President Francois Hollande, who remains so unpopular that he is not seeking a second term.
France’s presidential race is being closely watched internationally as a key gauge of populist sentiment, mainly promoted by Le Pen, with her nationalist program presented under the slogan “In the Name of the People.”