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All in la famille

January 16, 2011

France's biggest far-right party changes leadership on Sunday as Marine Le Pen takes the reins from her father. She hopes to give a fresh face to a highly divisive party.

Marine Le Pen
Le Pen hopes to modernize the National FrontImage: AP

Marine Le Pen beat out her father Jean-Marie Le Pen's longtime aide Bruno Gollnisch on Sunday to become the new leader of France's far-right party.

Jean-Marie Le Pen stepped down from his role as party leader on Saturday. Marine Le Pen, 42, is currently in the European Parliament representing the National Front, France's far-right, anti-immigrant party.

Recent polls show 22 percent of French people agree with the party's ideas and 17 percent would vote for Le Pen if she runs for president in 2012.

A lawyer and twice-divorced mother of three, Marine Le Pen has avoided the fascist stigma and racism and anti-Semitism many associate with her 82-year-old father.

Veiled women take part to a demonstration
The National Front warns of Muslims taking over FranceImage: AP

Her rhetoric, however, remain polarizing - she recently compared Muslims praying in the streets outside overcrowded mosques to the Nazi occupation of France.

The National Front's political platform includes a return to the death penalty and mandatory military service, a "presumption of legitimate defense" when police use force against suspects, and an end to social welfare payments for foreigners.

Successor to a bogeyman

Le Pen senior, dubbed in the press as the bogeyman of French politics, formally steped down from his position at the National Front party conference in Tours, in western France, on Saturday.

Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the party in 1972 and appalled many in France with comments on immigrants and Jews.

He was convicted in 1997 of minimizing the Holocaust when he said the gas chambers of World War II were a "detail in history." He was convicted four other times for charges ranging from assault in his youth to hate speech.

Despite his self-described "slip-ups," the party leader went on to win nearly 17 percent of the vote in France's 2002 presidential elections, beating out incumbent Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin by less than 200,000 votes. He lost in the run-off to conservative Jacques Chirac by a landslide.

Fresh face

Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen
Marine Le Pen goes for a less abrasive image than her fatherImage: AP

Nonna Mayer, an expert on the far right at the Sciences Po school for political science in Paris, said Marine Le Pen is part of an effort to renew the National Front's image and broaden its appeal to more mainstream voters.

"She embodies a new political generation in the National Front, which wants to modernize it and stop it seeming old-fashioned," Mayer said.

Le Pen's strategy is to portray her party's platforms of anti-immigration and anti-Islam as a defense of traditional French values. But while she may present a more attractive image to voters, critics have said Le Pen is simply a repackaged version of the National Front her father represents.

"Compared to him, she represents far less the xenophobic far-right," Mayer said. "But that doesn't mean that underneath she is any different."

Rise across Europe

French President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to be noticing the swing to the right in France, hardening his own stance on immigration and security.

Analysts see his government's banning of the burqa, the full-body veil worn by some Muslim women, and its mass deportation of Roma migrants to Romania and Bulgaria last August as efforts to attract potential National Front voters in next year's presidential election.

France is not alone in seeing a rise of the far right into the European political mainstream: far-right parties are in governments in Italy and are supporting governments in Denmark and the Netherlands. They also hold seats in parliaments in Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden.

Many Europeans see growing populations of foreigners - especially Muslims - as incompatible with Western values, according to Matthew Goodwin of the London-based think-tank Chatham House.

While that may translate into a more prominent voice for far-right parties, he said it does not signify a fundamental change.

"The far-right aren't going to take national power across Europe," Goodwin said. "But they will remain on the European political landscape."

Author: Andrew Bowen (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

Editor: Sean Sinico