France's Le Pen pledges headscarf fines in tight election battle

Ms Le Pen has eroded the margin between she and Mr Macron and feels she has a real chance of winning the run-off

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is gaining ground in the race. AFP

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen vowed on Thursday to issue fines to Muslims who wear headscarves in public, as candidates made a final push for votes three days before an election seen as increasingly close.

President Emmanuel Macron built what seemed to be an unassailable lead before the first round of polls on Sunday but Ms Le Pen has eroded the margin and feels she has a real chance of winning the run-off on April 24.

With France's traditional right and left-wing parties facing electoral disaster, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is on course to come third and he still believes he can sneak into a run-off.

Ms Le Pen is to hold her last campaign rally on Thursday evening in the southern stronghold of Perpignan, where her National Rally party has long had strong support and runs the local council.

She told RTL radio how her pledge to ban the headscarf in all public spaces would be implemented, saying it would be enforced by police in the same way as wearing seatbelts in cars.

"People will be given a fine in the same way that it is illegal to not wear your seat belt. It seems to me that the police are very much able to enforce this measure," she said.

Ms Le Pen has said she will use referendums to try to avoid constitutional challenges to many of her proposed laws on the basis that they are discriminatory and an infringement on personal freedom.

Previous legislation in France banning obvious religious symbols in schools or full-face coverings in public was allowed on the basis that it applied to all citizens and in specific settings.

Ms Le Pen, 53, has toned down her anti-immigration speech during campaigning this year and has focused on household spending, putting her closer than ever to power, polls indicate.

The latest surveys suggest she is within striking distance of centrist Mr Macron if the two of them come top in the first round of voting on Sunday.

An average of polls indicate Mr Macron has a slight lead of 54 per cent in the run-off, compared with 46 per cent for Ms Le Pen.

Mr Melenchon is also rising strongly ahead of voting and is talking up his chances of springing a surprise.

The war in Ukraine and strains on the health system after two years of Covid-19 are high among voter concerns, behind the biggest priorities: inflation and incomes.

The slogan "Vote!" underlines the priority for Ms Le Pen in encouraging supporters to turn out on Sunday after high abstention rates resulted in a disappointing result for her in regional elections last June.

Greens candidate Yannick Jadot, conservative Valerie Pecresse, far-right former TV pundit Eric Zemmour and flagging Socialist nominee Anne Hidalgo also had rallies planned for Thursday.

Le Monde newspaper reported that Ms Hidalgo hosted a secret dinner of Socialist notables including former president Francois Hollande to discuss the party's post-election future, prompting claims that she had capitulated before the poll had even taken place.

Mr Macron was to give an interview to the Aujourd'hui newspaper in which he is expected to continue his strategy of promising steady leadership in a time of crisis, while portraying Ms Le Pen as a dangerous extremist.

"Our initial objective is to consolidate our lead and to prevent Marine Le Pen coming out ahead in the first round," a source in Mr Macron's ruling party told AFP.

Despite entering the campaign late after being distracted by the war in Ukraine, he has no scheduled public events on Thursday.

"I've acquired experience of crises, international experience. I've also learned from my mistakes," Mr Macron told Le Figaro newspaper.

He acknowledged that "results on immigration were insufficient" and that new arrivals had increased at the start of his term in 2017-2019.

"Worries were created at this point. I didn't succeed in reducing them and they have fed the extremes," Mr Macron said, referring to Ms Le Pen and Mr Zemmour, who is promising "zero immigration".

A recent poll found that a slim majority of French people (51 per cent) found Ms Le Pen worrying, while 39 per cent considered she had the stature of a president, up from 21 per cent in 2017.

About 65 per cent of French people thought Ms Macron had the stature of a president, the survey from the left-leaning Jean-Jaures Foundation showed.

Ms Le Pen laughed at the idea that she could be demonised on her third run for the presidency, despite Mr Macron's intention of attacking her as economically reckless and xenophobic.

"Scare-mongering, which entails saying that unless Emmanuel Macron is re-elected, it will be a crisis, the Sun will be extinguished, the sea will disappear and we'll suffer an invasion of frogs, no longer works," she told RTL.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 4:39 AM