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Le Pen for president?

Elizabeth Bryant Paris
January 11, 2017

The French National Front goes into this election year in a buoyant mood, hoping to attract mainstream voters who will heave Marine Le Pen into office. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

Marine Le Pen - Pressekonferenz
Image: DW/E. Bryant

The weather is bone chilling, and Laurent Salles' hands are numb as he passes out flyers bearing the smiling face of far-right leader Marine Le Pen at a weekly market.

Four years ago Salles was just another grassroots member of Le Pen's National Front, or FN, party. Now, he is a municipal councillor of this once staunchly Communist suburb where the Eiffel Tower is etched on the skyline.

And while many shoppers brush past him, some pause to slip a glossy leaflet in shopping carts packed with cheeses and fresh vegetables. He snags a black man to talk politics. A woman kisses his cheeks and proffers a bottle of wine to celebrate the new year.

"I've seen a change in how the population views us," Salles, who joined the FN three decades ago at age 16, tells DW. "It's a lot less conflictual because the fears have lessened. They see us in action as elected officials."

Today, the party wants to go mainstream in a big way, hoping voters will elect 48-year-old Le Pen as France's first female leader. While the FN has long been a fixture in national politics, Salles is not alone in detecting growing public acceptance.

Wahlumfrage - Laurent Salles
Le Pen campaign workers like Laurent Salles (right) say their candidate is enjoying a growing acceptance among mainstream votersImage: DW/E. Bryant

"Five or six years ago many voters did not want to tell polling institutes they contemplated voting for the National Front," says far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus. "Today they're more outspoken, although the National Front has not changed much on issues like national identity, immigration and xenophobia," he told DW.

Defending populism

During a recent interview with foreign media, including DW, Le Pen outlined presidential priorities that include renegotiating France's European Union membership - and holding a 'Frexit' referendum on leaving the EU within six months of taking office - to slicing the numbers of parliamentary lawmakers as part of a broader effort to reduce layers of government.

She also defended populism rising across Europe and the United States. "Is it those who want to defend the government of, for and on behalf of the people?" asked Le Pen, who was among the first European politicians to congratulate US President-elect Donald Trump on his win. "If that's the case, then I accept being called a populist."

Marine Le Pen - Pressekonferenz
Le Pen has managed to somewhat blunt her abrasive tone making her more appealing to a wider electorateImage: DW/E. Bryant

On foreign policy, Le Pen blamed the EU for the crisis in Ukraine, and welcomed possible warming relations between the US and Russia under a Trump presidency.

"I don't want a war between the US and Russia for a very egotistical reason - we're in the middle," she said, calling instead for an alliance between France, Russia and the US to combat Islamist extremism.

A new look for the far right

France's presidential campaign is among Europe's most closely watched this year, and Le Pen is riding a wave of voter anger with the lacklustre economy, rising immigration and militant Islam. So unpopular is incumbent President Francois Hollande that he announced last month he would not run for reelection.

Many predict Le Pen will lead April's first round of voting but ultimately lose the May runoff, probably to center-right frontrunner Francois Fillon - an outcome reminiscent of 2002, when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, lost to incumbent Jacques Chirac in what amounted to a massive referendum against extremism.

Today, however, the younger Le Pen is far more popular than her pugnacious father. She has softened the FN's extremist edges, making it more palatable to mainstream voters.

Inside Europe: Predicting the French elections

"Usually extreme right parties are led by men," says analyst Camus. "Now we have this woman in her '40s, who appeals as a modern woman and who is not only attracting elderly, white male voters but younger female ones as well."

Time for change?

An inquiry into allegedly fraudulent use of FN assistants at the European Parliament - which Le Pen denounces as politically timed and is filing a legal complaint in Brussels - may not necessarily dent her support, Camus believes.

"The average National Front voter dislikes the EU so much it could even be a plus," he says.

At the Suresnes market, computer technician Olivier Nicolas is contemplating voting for Le Pen. He doesn't subscribe to the FN's economic policies, but he agrees France must limit immigration and reassert control over its borders. Le Pen, he says, has "integrity."

"I don't think she can win," he tells DW. "There's a real glass ceiling because of the media labelling the FN as far-right - even though its ideas are pretty much the same as the center right's in the 1990s."

But another shopper, 59-year-old Evelyne Nodex, tells DW that she believes France is ready for change.

"Left, right, it's the same," she says of the mainstream alternatives. "Things are stagnating. We've never had the National Front in power. Why would they be any worse?"