Le Pen daughter eyes new era for French far right
For 40 years, one tough man has dominated French far-right politics. Now it's makeover time, with Jean-Marie Le Pen's youngest daughter Marine expected to take the helm of his anti-immigrant National Front.
If Marine, 42, is crowned successor to her 82-year-old father this weekend, as is widely expected, she will see in a new era for the Front (FN) and pose a big challenge for President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the 2012 election.
"She embodies a new political generation in the National Front, which wants to modernise it and stop it seeming old-fashioned," said Nonna Mayer, a specialist on the far right at elite politics school Sciences-Po.
Despite Marine Le Pen's efforts to soften the party's xenophobic image, critics say she represents the same old Front in new clothes, playing on white voters' sensitivities over France's large Muslim population.
"She doesn't reflect the violent image that was associated with her father. Compared to him, she represents far less the xenophobic far-right," Mayer said.
"But that doesn't mean that underneath she is any different."
Among the Front's policies are a return to the death penalty and compulsory military service, a "presumption of legitimate defence" when police use force against suspects, and an end to social welfare payments for foreigners.
Recent polls showed 22 percent of French people agreed with the party's ideas and 17 percent would vote for Marine Le Pen if she runs for president in 2012. Support for the party grew over the past year amid high unemployment.
Analysts see the blonde lawyer, a twice-divorced mother of three and member of the European Parliament, as part of a new age of far-right leaders across Europe seeking to shake off the fascist stigma of their predecessors.
Her strategy: countering the sexist, anti-Semitic reputation of her father and spinning an anti-immigration, anti-Islam agenda as a positive defence of French values.
"Le Pen is Le Pen and Marine is Marine... I don't share his view of history," she was quoted as saying in an interview with the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz this month.
Like her father, she has not avoided causing outrage with outspoken comments, however. Last month she compared Muslims praying in the streets outside overcrowded mosques in France to the Nazi occupation.
"This is the true face of the far right which has not changed in the slightest, and Marine Le Pen is just as dangerous as Jean-Marie Le Pen," Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said in response.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, an ex-paratrooper, founded the National Front in 1972 and built it into a strong political force, making international headlines when he shocked voters by coming second in the 2002 presidential election.
He caused outrage with his comments on immigrants and Jews, once dismissing the wartime Nazi death camps as a mere "detail of history."
But he changed the political game in France, forcing the mainstream right to compete with the FN on immigration and law and order issues.
Sarkozy did so successfully in the 2007 presidential election and has pushed a hard line on Islam, crime and immigrants, in what is widely seen as a strategy to stop the far right winning over voters in 2012.
"We have to win back the trust of those who voted for the FN," said one lawmaker in Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, Christian Vanneste. "That's the only way we can win in 2012."
Polls also suggest the Front is driving a wedge in Sarkozy's support base. A survey cited this week by Le Monde newspaper said 43 percent of UMP supporters favoured an alliance with the FN.
"For the first-time in the history of the National Front, the political establishment is not uniting against us, but is running after us," Marine Le Pen was quoted as saying by Haaretz.
But Jean-Francois Cope, general secretary of the UMP, ruled out any such alliance in a speech late Wednesday.
Le Pen senior formally steps down with a speech at his party's conference in Tours, western France on Saturday, to make way for an elected successor who will be named on Sunday.
Polls and analysts suggest that a vote by the party's 24,000 members will hand Marine Le Pen victory over Bruno Gollnisch, a traditional party stalwart who has cut a far lower media profile in campaigning over recent months.
The anti-racism league LICRA was not impressed by the prospect.
The FN "is now campaigning for secularism and women's rights, principles that it has always rejected, in order to normalise its anti-Muslim racism," LICRA said in a statement.
© 2011 AFP