By Matthias Galante (Reuters)
NICE, France - France's presidential election frontrunner Francois Fillon vowed on Wednesday to take back control of immigration including by imposing quotas on non-European Union nationals as he looks to win votes from the far-right National Front party.
Immigration and security are key issues in the campaign for this year's vote with the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, promising to be tough on immigration, radical Islam and to exit the EU's border-free area.
Fillon is seen beating Le Pen if they meet in a runoff vote in May in the election and was campaigning on Wednesday in south-eastern France, a region where Le Pen has garnered support largely down to her stance on immigration and Islam.
"France is generous, but it is not a mosaic and a territory without limits. It is one nation that has a right to chose who can join it and a right that foreigners accept its rules and customs," Fillon told a rally of some 2,000 supporters.
Outlining his proposals, the former prime minister said he wanted parliament to adopt annual quotas limiting the number of foreigners admitted to the country based on economic needs and capacity to integrate, a move that he said would discourage entire families from coming to France.
"We have six million unemployed and nearly nine million poor people. Immigration must be firmly controlled and reduced to a strict minimum," he said, adding that he would be ready to revise the constitution and take on European institutions to implement changes.
He said he would also deny social benefits to immigrants who have legally resided in France for less than two years.
Urging the European Union to tighten its asylum and immigration policy to counter threats from Islamist militants, he said he would cut down the time to process asylum requests and increase the period illegal immigrants could be held in detention centers.
Development aid and the allocation of visas for countries would depend on whether illegal immigrants were taken back by their country of origin, he said.
Fillon, who was speaking in Nice where 86 people where killed in July in a truck attack claimed by Islamic State, did not back an exit from the EU's Schengen border-free area.
However, he stressed that attacks in Europe, most recently in Berlin where the assailant was able to travel easily across the continent before being gunned down, showed that Schengen needed to be reviewed.
"Within the context of war on Islamic totalitarianism, as long as Europe's borders are not protected by our partners, France will re-establish lasting controls at its borders," he said.
Fillon's immigration plans, along with his embrace of free market economic policies, have drawn criticism from rivals on the left who say they will deepen divisions in French society.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Sophie Louet and John Irish; writing by John Irish; Editing by Ralph Boulton)