The French far-right populist National Front has announced it will take part in the April presidential election. Its candidate, party leader Marine Le Pen, has a modern image which is expected to appeal to new voters.
"What's the difference between the National Front and other far-right populist parties in Europe?" asks Etienne Francois, a historian with the France Center at the Free University in Berlin. He laughs bitterly: "In no other European country does a far-right populist party have as many supporters as in France - unfortunately!"
The polls forecast that 15 percent of French voters will choose the National Front on April 22. That's roughly the same percentage of the vote the party has been getting in the first round of presidential elections ever since the 1980. The party has only made it into the runoff once, in 2002.
For many years, the dominant figure in the party was Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front 40 years ago and was well-known for his anti-Semitic and racist statements.
More moderate, more modern
Marine Le Pen, the youngest of Jean-Marie's three daughters, took over the leadership of the party in January 2011. The 43-year-old lawyer is more flexible than her father, says Florian Hartleb, who is currently researching labor, populism and extremism in the EU at the Centre for European Studies in Brussels. He argues that she is trying to modernize the party and launch it in a more moderate direction.
But euroskepticism, nationalism and the defense of French sovereignty remain central to the party's program. Marine wants France out of the eurozone, and out of NATO. A major policy plank remains xenophobia: the National Front continues to fight against the alleged subversion of the country, especially at the hands of Muslim immigrants.
The old basic positions
Etienne Francois calls the National Front "a massive protest party." Its basic positions have remained the same, even if Marine does not say anything anti-Semitic or racist.
"Marine Le Pen makes herself out to be the defender of laicism - the separation of church and state - and the values of the French republic, and she acts the part of the protector of the little people against the bosses up above," he says.
But the tenor of her strategy is easy to recognize: she started a campaign against meat slaughtered under Muslim religious rules. She based the campaign on republican values and respect for the wishes of the French people.
But in fact, in her videos and on her home page she's exploiting fears of allegedly harmful Muslim customs: "What are the risks for those who eat halal meat, without their even knowing?" she asks, concerned. "The consumer is paying tribute to Islam whenever he eats halal meat. What has happened to the republic's regulations? Why do the authorities do nothing about it? Why do both the left-wing and right-wing parties deny there's a scandal?"
Voters from all parts of society
With such an approach, Marine Le Pen speaks to all parts of society - not just the frustrated, elderly and poor, but also industrial and service-sector workers.
According to Hartleb, it's typical that middle class people vote for such parties, if they have a grudge against foreigners or fear that their prosperity might be at risk. But, as Francois notes, "increasing numbers of the so-called educated and prominent see the party as respectable."
Incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to win votes in this group by exploiting the same topics as Le Pen. He, too, is talking about halal slaughter - and about immigration. As he said at a campaign event last weekend: "If there is no serious progress within a year in protecting the outer borders of the EU, France will suspend its membership of the [border-free] Schengen zone."
The national card
"He's playing the national, the nationalist card," says Hartleb. If, as is likely, Le Pen drops out in the first round of voting, many observers think her voters will turn to Sarkozy in the runoff.
And Francois believes that, if Sarkozy should lose the presidential election to his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, the moderate conservatives could be tempted to make electoral pacts with the National Front for the parliamentary election in June. That would make the far-right even more respectable in the French political scene.
Author: Daphne Grathwohl / mll
Editor: Martin Kuebler