French far-right leader Le Pen won’t endorse anyone for president

PARIS — The leader of France’s resurgent, anti-immigrant far right, Marine Le Pen, has refused to endorse either candidate in the country’s presidential runoff, saying Tuesday that she will cast a blank protest ballot.

PARIS — The leader of France’s resurgent, anti-immigrant far right, Marine Le Pen, has refused to endorse either candidate in the country’s presidential runoff, saying Tuesday that she will cast a blank protest ballot.

Le Pen, who came in a strong third place in the first round of voting April 22, told thousands of supporters at a march and rally to “vote according to your conscience.”

The head of the National Front party assailed conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has borrowed some of Le Pen’s rhetoric about immigrants, Muslims and the inhuman face of Europe with its rules and regulations in his campaign, accusing him of impoverishing the French and giving up too much sovereignty to the European Union.

Polls have consistently suggested that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande will defeat Sarkozy in Sunday’s final vote, and the incumbent is trying to win over the more than 6 million voters who supported Le Pen.

Le Pen’s score in the first-round vote, nearly 18 per cent, was the best ever by a National Front candidate. It propelled the party back onto the French political stage, where for decades Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had played the spoiler in elections. In the 2002 presidential vote, the elder Le Pen reached the final round.

The National Front, castigated by many as xenophobic, holds the May Day rally each year to honour Joan of Arc, the teen age warrior born 600 years ago who fought to oust the English from France. Le Pen laid a wreath at a gilded statue of Joan of Arc on the path of the march to the square in front of the ornate Paris Opera where she addressed the crowd.

Le Pen threw cold water on Sarkozy’s attempts to woo her voters.

“I will cast a blank ballot,” she said. “Each one of you will make your choice,” she said, stressing that she could endorse neither Sarkozy nor Hollande — but would not call on voters to abstain because the act of voting is “essential.”

Le Pen said the real election is the June legislative vote when she hopes to put legislators in parliament. The National Front had 33 lawmakers in the lower house until 1986, when voting rules changed.

“It is not the president who will be elected (on Sunday) but a simple employee of the European Central Bank,” said the woman who bills herself as the “anti-system” candidate.

Le Pen has said in the past that her goal is to “explode” the right and become the main opposition under a Socialist president. Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP, which combines various right-wing tendencies, is already showing signs of stress as he pitches to the far right.

Across town, Sarkozy held a campaign rally of his own Tuesday where he reached out once again to the far right, evoking France’s Christian roots and a heritage that must be dearly guarded — a theme dear to the National Front which fears that Muslim immigrants are intent on destroying old France.

In a radio interview Tuesday morning, he was asked whether France has too many immigrants, and he answered, “yes.”

“Our system of integration doesn’t work. Why? Because before we were able to integrate those who were received on our territory, others arrived. Having taken in too many people, we paralyzed our system of integration,” he said on RMC radio.

“I will never argue for zero immigration, but the reality is that when you invite more people than you can handle, you no longer integrate them,” he said.

Hollande is less in need of National Front support. He is assured of the backing of voters who gave extreme-leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon 10 per cent in the first round. Still, Hollande is quietly looking for National Front votes he says were cast in anger at the establishment.

At a speech Tuesday in Nevers, in the Burgundy region, Hollande said “we cannot welcome foreigners when our economic situation doesn’t allow us to.”