Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen lifted verbatim parts of a speech by a former rival in what her critics called plagiarism and she said was a deliberate "wink" to him to woo his conservative voters in France's presidential runoff Sunday.
The stolen words and casual reaction by Le Pen and her team marked the latest shocking development in a French presidential campaign like no other. Perhaps more surprisingly, there was little sign it would seriously damage Le Pen.
Polls consider her centrist rival Emmanuel Macron the front-runner in the vote, seen as a test of global populism and decisive moment for the European Union.
Le Pen borrowed from a speech delivered last month by Francois Fillon, the former Republicans party candidate, about France's important role in Europe and the world.
The subject is at the heart of Le Pen's campaign. She promises to restore French glory, pull France out of the EU and return to the franc currency. She has denounced the effects of globalization on the French economy and culture.
Speaking April 15, Fillon described France as a force reaching out on multiple fronts:
"The English Channel and the North Sea opening onto the Anglo-Saxon world and to the immense northern spaces. ... The Atlantic, which has opened us for centuries onto the great sea and brings us adventures. The Mediterranean, the cradle of some of history's oldest and richest civilizations. ... The Pyrenees, first of all, engaging France with that immense Hispanic and Latin universe. The Alps border, with Italy our sister and beyond that central Europe, the Balkans and eastern Europe. ... France is something more and much more than an economic, agricultural or military power."
Le Pen, speaking Monday at a Paris region campaign rally, said:
"The English Channel and the North Sea opening onto the Anglo-Saxon world and to the immense northern spaces. The Mediterranean, the cradle of the oldest and richest civilizations. The Pyrenees, first of all, engaging France with that immense Hispanic and Latin universe. The Alps border, with Italy our sister and beyond that central Europe, the Balkans and eastern Europe. ... France is something more and much more than an economic, agricultural or military power."
Like three of her aides earlier in the day, Le Pen used the word "wink" to describe the extracts copied word for word from Fillon. At no point in the speech did she cite Fillon or acknowledge the source.
"I totally own this wink," she said in a Tuesday night interview with French broadcaster TF1 news.
Le Pen added that her far-right National Front party and Fillon's conservative voters share "the same vision of France, of its greatness, of the role it should have in the world."
Fillon and his aides have not commented on Le Pen's move, which puts his Republicans party in an awkward spot. However the website that revealed the copied text, Ridicule TV, is reported to be run by Fillon supporters.
Polls suggest that as many as a third of Fillon's voters will choose Le Pen in the second round — but Fillon himself, immediately after being eliminated in the first-round vote April 23, urged voters to keep the long-pariah National Front out of power and vote instead for Macron.
A writer well-known in ultraconservative circles, Paul-Marie Couteaux, claimed credit for the passage used by both Le Pen and Fillon.
Couteaux expressed hope it would encourage right-wing voters to unite under a single banner. He tweeted Tuesday that the passage was borrowed from his 1997 book "Europe Toward War."
Couteaux has past links to both Fillon's campaign and Le Pen, according to French media reports.
Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, her centrist rival in Sunday's runoff election, have their only televised debate on Wednesday. Both are going after supporters of Fillon and the nine other candidates knocked out in the first round. France's two main parties failed to make it to the second round for the first time in the country's modern history.
The pro-business Macron, who has never held elected office and has no political party but served as economy minister under outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande, promised that he can build a legislative majority in legislative elections in June.
The next president will depend on lawmakers to implement an agenda. Macron, who has pulled support from the right and the left, said candidates will have to quit their parties to run under his 1-year-old informal political movement for parliament seats.
Le Pen attacked Macron during her Tuesday night interview, calling him Hollande's "puppet."
"If you find that everything is going well, if you want nothing to change, if you consider that the tax rate is correct, that the massive immigration we're receiving is a cultural, social and economic opportunity — what Macron believes in— then vote for him," she said.
On the contrary, she added, "if you consider that what you have lived through for five years is hell, that it is tax hell, economic hell, hell of the unfair international competition, hell of massive immigration, hell of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, hell of insecurity, so you have to vote for me."
The presidential campaign is happening amid unprecedented security, as France is under a state of emergency after multiple attacks by Islamic extremists. French authorities detained five men Tuesday in anti-terrorism raids in three sites around the country, although it is unclear whether there was any link to the election.