PARIS: Marine Le Pen has fought for years to make the far-right party she inherited electable, and now appears to have a real chance to challenge incumbent Emmanuel Macron for the French presidency this month.
Short of a major upset, polling suggests she will reach the run-off on April 24 against the centrist after Sunday’s first round vote.
And this time Macron is not assured of the support of the traditional united front of mainstream French voters that has seen Le Pen and her father off in previous elections.
Her strong performance is in large part thanks to her ability to soften her image in the 11 years she has led the former National Front, which she renamed the National Rally (RN) after expelling her father Jean-Marie in 2015.
Following a humiliating drubbing from Macron in a television debate before the 2017 election on Europe and economic policies, this time Le Pen has focused on cost of living issues in the face of rising inflation.
But the detail of her programme has changed little including measures like removing benefits from many immigrants, repudiating the primacy of EU law and closing the door on most asylum seekers.
The 53-year-old has also enjoyed cover from the emergence of Eric Zemmour, a bombastic TV polemicist who is still further to the right, and even more anti-Islam and anti-immigration.
“We’re within the margin of error to beat Emmanuel Macron,” National Rally interim president Jordan Bardella said Monday after the latest polls. “The momentum in Marine Le Pen’s favour has never been this strong.”
But political scientist and expert on the extreme right Jean-Yves Camus cautioned that the final points to take a candidate to 50 percent of the vote “are the hardest to win”.
Le Pen’s life has been marked by the legacy of her openly racist father, a veteran of the long war in Algeria that ultimately led to the former French colony’s independence.
French people forced to flee Algeria and their descendants — the so-called “pieds noirs” — remain a crucial base of support for the party in the south.
When she was young “it wasn’t easy for people to go out with Marine Le Pen” based on her family name, she told celebrity magazine Closer in an interview that aimed to present a more humane image.
“I remember one man chose to break up with me, the pressure from his social circle was so heavy.”
Twice divorced, she said she is now happy being single.
After training as a lawyer, she began her career defending illegal immigrants facing deportation, but later returned to the family fold and to her father’s party.
Under her leadership since 2011, the party has enlarged its appeal to people in France’s formerly Communist-voting northern rust belt. Her expulsion of the elder Le Pen, who once called the gas chambers of the Holocaust a “detail of history”, has also helped temper its toxic image.
The tough years following the 2017 defeat saw Le Pen purge still more senior RN members judged harmful to the party’s image, while her niece Marion Marechal — a former MP and popular figure on the French far-right — has switched her support to Zemmour.
The Le Pen name remains touchy enough that most RN campaign posters refer to the candidate simply as “Marine”.
Experts have warned that the laws Marine Le Pen says she will pass would overturn historic French principles.
“This text represents nothing less than an exit from the constitutional framework France has lived in since the Revolution,” constitutional law expert Dominique Rousseau told Challenges magazine.
Le Pen’s plans include a so-called “national preference” for hiring French workers over foreigners, exclusion of non-citizens from some social benefits and opting out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights.
That would mean “abandoning our (treaty) commitments and setting off a Frexit” — a French departure from the European Union — said Serge Slama, a law professor at the University of Grenoble.
Meanwhile a backlash over Le Pen’s professed admiration for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who she met in 2017, has so far failed to materialise despite the war in Ukraine.
Le Pen has nonetheless called for France to recall its ambassador to Moscow over the conflict.
“For protest voters, international affairs, even if they’re among everyone’s worries, won’t be the first point of reference for their ballot,” said Anne Muxel, research director at Paris’ Centre for Political Research.
Le Pen has succeeded in playing on “great disruptions in our society”, Macron acknowledged on France Inter radio Monday.
“All this… creates fear. And those who play on fears are rising. I haven’t managed to hem them in,” he admitted.