PARIS French President Nicolas Sarkozy marked a rightward shift in his re-election campaign on Saturday, pledging to cut the number of immigrants and calling for clear labeling of halal meat in a bid to entice voters away from the National Front.
Speaking to thousands of flag-waving supporters at a rally in the western city of Bordeaux, Sarkozy vowed to defend secular values in France - which has Europe's largest Muslim minority - and to send a tough message on law and order if he wins a fresh five-year term in a two-round election in April and May.
Despite rebounding in polls since launching his campaign last month, Sarkozy trails Socialist rival Francois Hollande.
"We must reduce the number of arrivals on our territory," Sarkozy said, pledging to end the automatic right of immigrants to be joined by their families. "You are not welcome in France if you are only coming to receive welfare. Everyone thinks it: it is time for republicans to say it."
"Those who come with the intention of not respecting our laws and our customs, of not respecting the property of others, of not sending their children to school, of not making an effort at integration, they are not welcome on French soil," he said.
National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, running third in polls with nearly 20 percent, sparked a scandal last month by claiming that almost all meat in Paris was halal - killed according to Islamic norms by cutting the animal's throat and letting its blood drain out.
Meat industry association, Interbev, denied this.
Sarkozy appeared to court Le Pen's supporters by echoing remarks from his hardline Interior Minister Claude Gueant on Saturday rejecting "multiculturalism" and suggesting school canteens should not serve halal meat.
"Let's recognize everyone's right to know what they're eating, halal or not. I'd like to see, therefore, the ticketing of meat according to its method of slaughter," Sarkozy said.
"We have to consider our holidays, the church and cathedral towers in our villages and towns, our eating habits, our morality, as aspects of our civilisation not just our religion: the civilisation of the French Republic."
HOLLANDE VOWS INDEPENDENCE FROM PARTY
Attitudes towards immigration and the Muslim minority have long been an important electoral issue in France, with Sarkozy accused of courting the far right when he won power in 2007.
Though polls show Hollande stands to win a May 6 runoff against Sarkozy by more than 12 percentage points, the question of where Le Pen's support would go in the second round could become decisive if that gap narrows.
Burdened with the worst poll ratings of any French leader seeking re-election, Sarkozy is attempting to recover the political initiative by drip feeding his program on a weekly basis, with justice and immigration the latest topics. Hollande presented his own 60 point agenda in January.
Sarkozy, however, suffered setbacks this week. He was mobbed by left-wing militants and Basque activists on the campaign trail near the Spanish border and Hollande regained traction with a popular proposal to introduce a 75 percent tax rate for those earning more than 1 million euros a year.
At a meeting in Dijon, Hollande also portrayed himself as a defender of France's secular republican tradition and pledged to govern in the national interest, if elected, free from the influences both of his own party and of France's wealthy elites.
"The next president will be independent from his own party. I am a Socialist and I will remain it, but I will not act like just the head of my party," he said.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Matthias Blamont, Yann Le Guernigou, Claude Canellas and Emmanuel Jarry)