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Marine Le Pen vows to put France first at National Front party conference

Marine Le Pen has launched her bid for the French presidency with a fiery speech in Lyon. The far-right leader echoed many of the populist sentiments expressed by supporters of US President Donald Trump and Brexit.

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French candidates kick off campaigns

Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) kicked off her campaign to become France's next president with a speech that took many of its cues from the campaign rhetoric of divisive - and successful - populist leaders in Britain and the United States.

Delivering her speech to an audience of around 3,000 people in Lyon on Sunday, Le Pen emphasized that under her leadership France's national interests would take precedence above all else - an obvious nod to the platforms on which US President Donald Trump ("America First") and "Leavers" in the UK ("Take back control") rode to success.

"We will be all about the local, not the global," Le Pen said to the cheering crowd. She decried globalization: not just that of the financial world but also "a globalization from below, via mass immigration."

Anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise in France, especially in the wake of multiple terrorist attacks beginning with a massacre in Paris on November 13, 2015, that claimed 130 lives. "We do not want to live under the yoke or the threat of Islamic terrorism," she said, promising a "zero tolerance" approach to crime.

Her comments come just days after an incident at the Louvre in the French capital, in which a man wielding two machetes was shot multiple times by police after allegedly yelling "Allahu Akbar."

Le Pen also took aim at the EU, threatening to hold a referendum similar to the one in Britain. "If the EU does not submit, then I will ask the French to vote in the referendum to resign from this nightmare," she said.

She also questioned the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the intergovernmental military alliance of which France was one of the founding fathers. 

Frankreich Le Pen startet Wahlkampf mit Angriffen auf die EU (Reuters/R. Prata)

Some 3,000 people were in attendance during Le Pen's speech in Lyon

A new tone in the FN manifesto

Le Pen had unveiled her party program ahead of her speech, reflecting a modified version of the populist values traditionally put forward by the party.

The document highlighted 144 measures, including the re-introduction of border controls, strict limits on immigration, a return to the country's pre-euro franc currency and the prospect of leaving NATO. The FN manifesto also highlighted the prospect of the introduction of tough security measures to fight terrorism, including the possibility of stripping binational offenders linked to terrorist networks of their French citizenship.

However, it omitted some of the ideas that the far-right party traditionally advocated during election campaigns in the past. The habitual pledge to re-introduce the death penalty in France was omitted in the manifesto, while in a bid to attract older voters the party introduced plans to increase pensions and lower inheritance tax.

Le Pen also suggested plans for organizing a referendum regarding the future of France's membership of the European Union following the June 23, 2016, plebiscite in the United Kingdom on leaving the EU, commonly referred to as "Brexit." The move was most welcomed in the UK by older voters.

Frankreich Macron will verstärkten Kampf gegen Terror (picture alliance/dpa/M. Ollivier)

Emmanuel Macron now appears to be Le Pen's most viable alternative

A new force to reckon with

"People are waking up. They see Brexit, they see Trump and they're saying to themselves: 'It's worth going to vote,'" the FN party's deputy leader Florian Philippot said ahead of Le Pen's speech.

During the presidential convention in Lyon on Saturday, the 48-year-old FN leader announced that the manifesto was designed to "get the country back on track." Early polls show that Le Pen will likely be among France's two top presidential candidates, but suggest that she'll lose by a wide margin in the May 7 runoff vote.

Le Pen is facing growing competition in the form of former Economics Minister and presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. His poll ratings have jumped in the wake of corruption allegations against the former frontrunner, conservative politician Francois Fillon, reinvigorating the race for the Elysee Palace. Recent polls predict that he will come in second or third place in the first round of voting - and might thus face Le Pen in the run-off vote, which pollsters say would see Macron beating Le Pen.

Macron has distanced himself from the Socialist Party, of which he used to be a member, creating his own movement for his presidential campaign: "En Marche!" (translation: "On the move") positions itself as a centrist, market-oriented party with Macron claiming that he was the only candidate capable of rising above the traditional left-right split in French politics.

ss,blc/sms  (AFP, dpa)

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