PARIS (AP) — Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has declared that foreigners in France should go through a "waiting period" before benefiting from the country's social services and that children whose parents are in France illegally shouldn't be allowed free schooling.
Le Pen, a leading candidate in France's spring presidential election, took on a prickly subject Thursday during her annual stroll through the Paris Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees Avenue.
France's education minister issued a statement "forcefully condemning" Le Pen's proposals.
Le Pen, the National Front leader, wants to stop what she calls "massive" immigration and is urging an exit from the European Union and the 19-nation eurozone currency.
Le Pen said she wants an end to free automatic schooling for children of illegal migrants and says foreigners working in France legally should pay taxes for a while before accessing social benefits.
She said she believes free schooling helps lure immigrants to France "like a suction."
"There is no reason the French should pay for the schooling of children of people who break the law," she said.
As for immigrants with legal status, "I think there is a certain amount of time for taxes from them before getting access to all the public services, like education, social security," she said after a stop at a stand selling Champagne.
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said the far-right leader was both ignorant of international accords signed by France that say no one can be refused an education and of France's own educational code, which makes schooling obligatory for "children of both sexes, French and foreign, between six and 16 years old."
In France, education is seen as the prime method of forming French citizens and integrating immigrants.
Le Pen's proposals — which did not appear fully defined — are a clear effort to find ways to cut the drain on the nation's social benefits system, and to counter a potentially formidable adversary, France's former prime minister and conservative candidate, Francois Fillon, who has reforming social benefits as one of his top goals.
Le Pen has been high in polls ahead of the first round of presidential voting in April, which winnows the field down to two finalists for the May runoff.
"Mr. Fillon has said we are a country in bankruptcy .... I think that national solidarity should firstly concentrate on and benefit the French," Le Pen said.
Among others seeking the presidency is Manuel Valls, who just stepped down as France's prime minister and is trying to capture the nomination at the left's January primary.
Unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande has announced he will not seek a second term.