France’s dueling far-right presidential candidates are holding back-to-back campaign rallies on Saturday, trying to steal each other’s thunder and keep their anti-immigration, anti-Islam agenda front and center in the race for the April presidential election.
Marine Le Pen, who came in second in the last presidential election in 2017, is holding what is billed as her first major campaign event in the city of Reims in Champagne country.
She will present her platform and try to reinvigorate her base after some high-profile defections to the campaign of rival Eric Zemmour.
Zemmour, a pundit and provocateur who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech, planned a rally in the northern city of Lille on the same day as Le Pen’s, apparently to try to draw attention away from her.
Both hope to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in the two-round election on 10 and 24 April.
Macron has a campaign team in place but has yet to declare his candidacy officially. A centrist, he has shifted to the right amid growing support for conservative and far-right policies, notably on security and immigration.
Le Pen, a member of parliament, has been working for a decade to clean up the image of her National Rally party and build up its political base, to make it more palatable to a broader swath of voters and improve her chances at the presidency.
Zemmour has no political experience but is widely known for his role as a TV commentator that allowed him to spread his extreme views.
His program includes banning women from wearing Muslim headscarves in public and prohibiting the construction of any “imposing” mosques or minarets.
Last month, he was convicted of inciting racial hatred for calling underage migrants, thieves, rapists, and murderers.
Zemmour was previously convicted of incitement to racial hatred after justifying discrimination against Black and Arab people in 2010 and incitement to religious hatred for anti-Islam comments in 2016.
Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, has also repeated hate speech convictions, but Marine Le Pen is more cautious.
Polls suggest that Macron is favored to win a second term, but the race is close and unpredictable.
At this stage, Le Pen or Valerie Pecresse from the mainstream conservative Republicans party appear most likely to reach a runoff against Macron.
Zemmour has shaken up the race and rattled Le Pen’s camp but lags behind her in the polls. One outstanding question is whether Le Pen’s niece, former lawmaker Marion Marechal, will throw her support behind Zemmour instead.
Both Le Pen and Zemmour want stricter rules on immigration, including less state aid for migrants. Both oppose wind farms and want more support for nuclear energy.
Le Pen, who used to campaign to leave the EU and the euro, now wants to reform it from within.
Meanwhile, the French left is deeply divided, with multiple candidates vying for the presidency, but none expected to have a chance of reaching the runoff.
Other candidates include far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, Greens candidate Yannick Jadot, Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and former Justice Minister and anti-racism campaigner Christiane Taubira.