France’s far-right leader rides on anti-migrant wave

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The head of France's far right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, criticised yesterday (14 March) what she described as slack controls that had allowed tens of thousands of clandestine immigrants into Europe through Sicily.

Seeking to build on opinion polls that have shown her making big advances ahead of next year's presidential elections, Le Pen travelled to the tiny island of Lampedusa south of the Sicilian mainland, the initial goal of thousands trying to get into Europe from Africa.

"From the moment someone sets foot on Lampedusa they are in Europe and by definition they benefit from all the rules that are applied to illegal immigrants in Europe," she told reporters. "And these rules are lax."

Thousands of immigrants have arrived by boat in Lampedusa from Tunisia over the past few weeks, prompting Italian government ministers to warn that the unrest in North Africa could trigger an exodus "of biblical proportions".

Le Pen, who was met by dozens of protestors holding signs accusing her of racism, said 70% of those arriving in Lampedusa wanted to move on to France.

"I also came to express my solidarity to those who are having to shoulder this problem because the European Union is looking away, is doing nothing at all," she said.

The daughter of former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned France in 2002 by making it through to the final round of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen has attracted growing support since taking over the leadership in January.

At least one recent opinion poll has shown her edging to a slight lead over President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has moved themes like immigration and national identity to the centre of the political debate ahead of next year's election.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives are in disarray over immigration, Islam and law-and-order after far-right leader Marine Le Pen sailed past him for the first time in an opinion poll.

The poll, published in the daily newspaper Le Parisien, gives Le Pen 23% of voting intentions, ahead of Sarkozy and Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry.

Le Pen, 42, who succeeded her father Jean-Marie as leader of the National Front in January, has articulated fears of a mass influx of Arab refugees from the uprisings in North Africa and of a threat to France's secular order from Islam.

Sarkozy, whose popularity is at a record low 13 months before the first round of the 2012 presidential election, looks determined to try to win back Le Pen's voters by addressing the same themes as her.

But some politicians in his own camp, especially among centrists, say his strategy is counter-productive and will only legitimise Le Pen and her agenda.

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