French conservative presidential challenger attacks far-right rivals over Russia

PARIS, March 3 (Reuters) - The mainstream Conservative challenger in France's presidential election said on Thursday she would push for a hefty increase in defence spending, and laid into the pro-Russia views previously expressed by rivals further right along the political spectrum.

Valerie Pecresse said she would seek to raise defence spending to well above 2% of gross domestic product if she won April's election, to an annual 65 billion euros ($72 billion) by 2030 from a planned 50 billion euros in 2025.

Pecresse, who describes her politics as a blend of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, is scrambling to revive a faltering campaign that has seen her lose ground in polls to President Emmanuel Macron and two far-right candidates, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

In a campaign speech in Paris, Pecresse said politicians who had "for years" defended the policies of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, "are irresponsible and have damaged our national interests."

Le Pen accepted a loan from a Russian bank in 2014 to fund her 2017 presidential campaign during which she paid a visit to Putin, while in September 2020, Zemmour tweeted that he favoured a "Russian alliance" and that Moscow was "the most reliable ally, even more than the United States, Germany or Britain."

Both Le Pen and Zemmour have criticised Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Pecresse has suffered defections from her camp to Macron and lost the support of some staunch conservative voters to Zemmour, who talks of saving France from a downward spiral that he says is the result of mass immigration and Islam's growing influence.

Pecresse, lying third in polling behind Macron and Le Pen and criticised over her campaign last month by ex-conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, denied she was heading for defeat.

"A campaign is not a bet, it's a long haul," she said.

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Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Writing by Richard Lough; editing by John Stonestreet

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