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Finns Party deputy chairman and presidential candidate Laura Huhtasaari poses for a picture at the Finland's Parliament in Helsinki, Finland December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Tuomas Forsell

(reuters_tickers)

By Jussi Rosendahl and Tuomas Forsell

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland will leave the European Union and position itself as the Switzerland of the north to protect its independence if Laura Huhtasaari, the presidential candidate of the eurosceptic Finns Party has her way.

She also told Reuters in an interview she wants to tighten immigration rules.

Huhtasaari -- dubbed "Finland's Marine Le Pen" after France's National Front leader -- is a long-shot. But she believes she has a real chance in the January election as her party has taken a fresh start following its removal from the coalition government in June.

"The rise in Europe of parties that are critical towards the EU and immigration is due to bad, unjust politics," she said. "The role for Finland in the euro zone is the role of a loser and payer...

"I do not want Finland to become a province of EU, Finns must stand up for Finland's interests."

The Finns Party, formerly called "True Finns", rose from obscurity during the euro zone debt crisis with an anti-EU platform, complicating the bloc's bailout talks with troubled states.

It expanded into the second-biggest parliamentary party in 2015 and joined the government, but then saw its support drop due to compromises in the three-party coalition.

This June, the party picked a new hard-line leadership and got kicked out of the government, while more than half of its lawmakers left the party and formed a new group to keep their government seats.

Huhtasaari, 38, who was picked as deputy party leader in June, said voters were still confused after the split-up but that the party would eventually bounce back.

"The game is really brutal. The biggest parties want us to disappear from the political map. No-one is in politics looking for friends."

The Finns party ranks fifth in polls with a support of 9 percent, down from 17.7 percent in 2015 parliamentary election, while the new "Blue Reform" group, which has five ministers, is backed by only 1-2 percent.

STEP FORWARD, STEP BACK

Incumbent President Sauli Niinisto, who originally represented the centre-right NCP party, is widely expected to be elected for a second six-year term by a wide margin.

A poll by Alma Media last week showed 64 percent of voters supporting Niinisto while 12 percent backed lawmaker Pekka Haavisto from the Greens. Huhtasaari, a first term lawmaker, was backed by 3 percent of those polled.

"Things happen slowly when you're fighting against the hegemony... I still have time before the elections," she said.

Huhtasaari, who supports U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain's former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, said the European eurosceptic movement was gradually strengthening despite a series of blows to anti-establishment parties.

France's National Front and Italy's 5-Star Movement failed in attempts to win legislative and civic elections while UKIP won no seats in the British parliament, albeit that its goal of Brexit won a referendum.

"Any change takes time, a step forward and step back... But the movement strengthens all the time," she said, noting Austria's Freedom Party's strong performance in October elections.

Markku Jokisipila, the director at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies of the University of Turku, said Huhtasaari was unlikely to succeed in the Jan 28 election.

Around 70 percent of Finns support EU membership and the centre-right government is committed to the euro.

"There's no way around it, she is very inexperienced politically for this election," Jokisipila said.

He added that the Finns party had become more united after the June split-up, but that it was now too focussed on its anti-immigration and anti-EU platforms to be able to increase support.

"They will not disappear from the Finnish politics. The challenge is to broaden their profile... but they have also proved that they do have surprise potential."

(Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl and Tuomas Forsell Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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