Almost 9,000 North African immigrants have reached Lampedusa since January [EPA/CIRO FUSCO]

Immigrants fleeing North Africa should be turned back before they can land on European shores, French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said Monday on a visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Almost 9,000 migrants have reached the Mediterranean island by boat since January when Tunisia's revolution triggered widespread unrest across the region.

Le Pen, who leads the National Front party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is campaigning for next year's presidential election. A poll last week by Le Parisien newspaper suggested she could win the first round of voting, sending shock waves through French politics.

Le Pen said her visit was aimed at gathering information, not a provocation, but said that Europe was "impotent" to the challenge of immigration and needed to find a solution.

She called on European navies to patrol "as close as possible to the coasts from where the clandestine boats departed to send them back".

Le Pen was greeted by protesters as she toured a centre housing illegal immigrants, the news agency AP reported. Some held banners reading: "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood, even for those without documents."

"Madame Le Pen is a xenophobe, racist and neo-fascist, and we don't want her here," said Giacomo Sterlazzo, one of the protesters.

But the island's mayor, who has called the situation on the island "out of control", said the situation facing Lampedusa needed a European response.

"She is coming here to understand what is happening here. As far as racial hatred is concerned, everyone has his own personal style. Her father has his. She has hers. I am not going to judge her as a racist," Mayor Bernardino De Rubeis said.

Italy has asked other European countries to help, with the influx of migrants to its shores expected to swell as thousands more seek to escape unrest in Libya amid an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

"We believe there are about 1.5 million illegal immigrants in Libya, some estimate even 2.5 million," Roberto Maroni, the Italian interior ministry, told a parliamentary committee last week.

Source: Agencies