“I’ve got nothing against foreigners but I say to them: if you come to our country, don’t expect that you will be taken care of, treated (by the health system) and that your children will be educated for free,” Le Pen said.
“That’s finished now, it’s the end of playtime,” she told a conference in Paris in comments that provoked a storm of condemnation from the Socialist government.
Opinion polls suggest the leader of the National Front (FN) will finish second in next year’s presidential election, but she is hoping for new momentum after Donald Trump’s victory in the United States.
Speaking to AFP afterwards, the 48-year-old clarified that she wanted to block education for immigrants who are in France illegally, not all foreigners.
Such a move would contravene current French law, which guarantees school places for all children.
She also said that any foreigner using the public education system without paying tax in France would face a bill for school, which would affect European workers based temporarily in the country.
“We’re going to reserve our efforts and our national solidarity for the most humble, the most modest and the most poor among us,” Le Pen told the conference.
The nationalist FN sees itself as part of a global revolt against immigration, established political parties and globalisation epitomised by Trump’s victory last month.
Its leaders regularly criticise the use of France’s chronically over-budget social security system for foreigners, arguing that needy French people should be prioritised.
Polls currently show Le Pen qualifying for the second round of May’s election where she is forecast to face — and lose to — rightwing Republicans party candidate Francois Fillon.
Few analysts see her taking power, but it has been an unpredictable year in politics and France’s sickly economy and immigration are top issues for voters.
The country has unemployment of around 10 percent and rising national debt equivalent to one year’s economic output, or 98.4 percent of gross domestic product. It last ran a federal budget surplus in the 1970s.
– Illegal and condemned –
Trump made controlling illegal immigration a key part of his pitch to American voters, promising to deport 11 million undocumented migrants, whom he regularly portrayed as violent criminals.
In an interview with Time magazine this week, he signalled he might take a softer approach once in office, however, particularly towards the children of illegal immigrants studying in the US.
Immigration was also crucial in swinging Britain’s referendum on the European Union in June when many voters backed the Leave campaign to gain control over their borders.
Le Pen wants to withdraw France from the eurozone and has called for a referendum to pull the country out of the 28-member European Union, a move that might unravel the project.
Socialist Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem attacked the school proposals as shameful and unworkable, while the minister for children, Laurence Rossignol, called them “inhumane”.
Vallaud-Belkacem underlined that France guaranteed free education for all school-age children on its territory under its national laws and the international conventions it has signed.
“I remind you that it’s a matter of honour for the French republic to guarantee to children, to all children, the right to an education — in other words, the right to a future,” she said.
A spokesman for the Socialist party, Corinne Narassiguin, said Le Pen had shown the “real face of the FN” after years of trying to softer the party’s historic racist and antisemitic image.
The party has a long-standing policy of wanting to expel all illegal immigrants in France.
After a string of terror attacks over the last two years and the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, hardline rhetoric on immigration is seen as a vote-winner on the right.
Fillon has talked tough on newcomers, promising to reduce the influx to a “strict minimum.”
He has also rejected the idea of “multiculturalism”, called Islam a “problem” for France, and insists the country must defend its traditions, language and identity.
Le Pen’s proposals have echoes of plans reportedly drawn up by the interior ministry in Britain in 2015 when it was headed by Theresa May, who is now prime minister.
Leaked documents revealed by the BBC last week showed that May’s department had argued for immigration checks in schools and suggested places could be withdrawn for illegal immigrants.
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