BRUSSELS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened to pull France out of the EU's borderless Schengen agreement unless action is taken to reduce the number of illegal immigrants.
Speaking at an election rally on Sunday (11 March), Sarkozy said some EU member states are too lax with their borders, enabling unwanted migrants to enter France and causing a heavy burden on its social welfare system.
"At a time of economic crisis, if Europe doesn't pick those who can enter its borders, it won't be able to finance its welfare state any longer. We need a common discipline in border controls ... We can't leave the management of migration flows to technocrats and tribunals," he told around 50,000 supporters at an event in the Paris suburbs ahead of the first round of voting on 22 April.
Schengen lets people travel without passport checks in its 25 participating states, including 22 EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland and is seen as a landmark achievement in EU integration.
"The Schengen Agreement can no longer respond to the seriousness of the situation. It must be revised. There is a need to implement a structural reform that we have implemented for the euro," Sarkozy said.
The anti-immigration rhetoric is widely seen as an attempt to woo those who may be thinking of voting for the far-right. Last week, the President said he would halve the number of immigrants arriving in the country if he is re-elected.
Migrants to cause 'implosion'
His speech was warmly received, with flag-waving crowds chanting his name as he spoke of saving France from an "implosion" caused by migrants.
Eurostat, the EU's statistical office, estimates that around 3.8 million non-French nationals currently live in the country.
France also has one of Europe's largest Muslim populations. But some second and third generation French nationals of Maghreb origin find themselves marginalised and cut off from a society that is becoming increasingly hostile towards their faith.
The death of two teenagers of Maghreb origin set off three weeks of riots in 2005 in the Paris suburbs, where youth unemployment reportedly hovers at 40 percent.
Sarkozy noted at the rally that France was the first country to ban the niqab and the burqa "to give back to women control of their destiny." The prohibition came into effect last April, at the same time that France and Italy threatened to close their borders to Arab Spring refugees from Tunisia.
Free markets also bad
The French leader also took a swipe at globalisation, saying that Europe should adopt a "Buy European Act" which would require governments to favour European-made products in public contracts.
"I want a Europe that protects its citizens. I no longer want this savage competition," he said, adding that should the EU fail to implement such an act he would unilaterally introduce a "Buy French" law.
"I have lost none of my will to act, my will to make things change, my belief in the genius of France."
Sarkozy trails his main rival, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, by three percentage points in the first round, but has been catching up in recent days. But Hollande has a more commanding lead in the second round, with 56 percent compared to Sarkozy's 44, according to the latest OpinionWay-Fiducial poll.