French presidential candidate says strong European borders are needed


ATHENS, Greece (AP) — French presidential candidate Valérie Pecresse stressed the need for strong European borders on Friday, during a visit to Greece that will also see her visit a camp for asylum seekers on an island in the sea Aegean used by migrants to enter Europe from neighboring Turkey.

Pecresse, the presidential candidate for the conservative Les Républicains party is seen by many as the most important challenger to centrist President Emmanuel Macron – who is expected to stand for election in April even though he has not officially announced it.

“There is no Europe without borders, and the issue of borders today is absolutely essential for building European power,” said Pecresse, standing at the foot of the ancient Acropolis in Athens.

Pecresse seeks to elevate her stature as a potential stateswoman by traveling abroad and establish her migration credentials as hard as she tries to lure voters away from the influential French far-right.

“It’s not fortress Europe at all, but it’s not supermarket Europe either. When we have entry points required, it means that there are doors. There are doors and you have to go through the door, and for me this is my European model,” she said at the start of her two-day visit.

“It’s a pattern that when we want to enter someone’s house, we knock on the door and ask permission to enter. It’s not a model where everything is open to everyone.

A former government minister and current president of the Paris region, Pecresse has more government experience than other top candidates. Polls at this point suggest that if anyone can topple Macron, she might. However, the race is unpredictable and many voters remain undecided with three months to go.

Polls suggest that up to a third of voters could choose one of two far-right candidates in the April 10 first round – Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, who both placed anti-immigrant rhetoric central to their strategies.

The Macron government has also sought to limit immigration, calling for tougher EU rules and stepping up efforts against migrant smuggling.

Purchasing power and the pandemic are other major voter concerns.

Pecresse met with center-right Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Friday, and was due to travel to the eastern island of Samos on Saturday, where she will visit a camp for asylum seekers. The camp was opened late last year to replace a severely overcrowded settlement on the island where thousands of people lived in squalor, most of them in a slum that had grown up around the official camp.

Greece has been one of the main entry points into the European Union for people fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, with most using smugglers to reach the Greek islands near the Turkish coast.

But the government cracked down on the practice and the number of arrivals dropped. Greek authorities have come under heavy criticism for carrying out what rights groups call pushbacks – the illegal summary deportation of recent arrivals without allowing them to seek asylum. The government denies the practice, but says it vigorously patrols its land and sea borders and denies entry to people seeking to cross the border illegally.

The French presidential candidate praised Greece’s asylum policy, noting the dramatic reduction in arrivals.

“What Greece has done in terms of borders is totally exemplary,” she said. “They chose to be both firm and humane.”


Charlton contributed from Paris.


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