"Shocking" is probably the term most used by French analysts, and the European media at large, to comment on the surge of Marine Le Pen's National Front party after the first round of France's regional elections. Founded by her father Jean-Marie, "le FN", known throughout France by its acronym, has come out on top in six of the 13 French regions.

The French left is only coming first in two regions (Brittany and Aquitaine), and Nicolas Sarkozy's rightist party in four (Pays de Loire, Auvergne, Normandy, greater Paris). Even if a Republican alliance will probably shape up during the week, before the second round of the elections, the fact that two and perhaps three regions covering large swaths of France, may end up being managed by the extreme-right is a historically significant event.

After the Paris attacks of January 7 and 9, and November 13 of this year, some observers in France, and it seems many voters, thought that Le Pen and her party were the best-placed to tackle the rise of radicalism in and outside France. They imagined them the toughest, and potentially the most efficient, to respond to the enemy calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Inside Story: What’s behind the success of France’s far-right party?

They couldn't be further from the facts.

Astute strategy

We must, however, start by recognising that Le Pen and her entourage have followed a very astute strategy since taking over the party in January 2011.

They have purged the party of its most xenophobic members and representatives, have evicted anyone who publicly makes racist or anti-Semitic remarks, and have insisted on how mainstream the party now was thanks to a relatively young new leader, Marine Le Pen.

The fact that this twice-divorced, single mother is openly pro-gay rights and has distanced herself from fundamentalist Catholics have also helped hugely in broadening her appeal, and indeed, placed the party in the mainstream of French politics. In a telling exercise, the National Front has often threatened to sue journalists if they presented it as being "the extreme-right".


Also read: Marine Le Pen's victory is a bigger threat than ISIL


Last but not least, the National Front has, and perhaps most importantly of all, constantly hijacked and appropriated itself potent symbols of the republic, such as secularism. This has been purely tactical and devoid of sincerity.

Marine Le Pen keeps pointing her finger at immigrants and refugees but an overwhelming majority of the suicide bombers who struck Paris were French nationals.

 

If Marine Le Pen has renovated the party and made it more "acceptable" for millions of French voters, the facts show that on topics such as the fight against terrorism, her party has, in the words of the political analyst Caroline Fourest, "not only offered the wrong diagnosis, but also presented the wrong solutions".

To fight terrorists at home and abroad, intelligence gathering and sharing is of the essence. However, Le Pen's MPs, senators and MEPs have voted against a recent law giving more resources and power to France's intelligence services. They have also voted against the creation of a pan-European Passenger Names Record which could track the travelling of potentially radicalised people, and they have voted against more cooperation between European police forces.

Hatred for the EU

Their hatred for the EU means that the National Front would rather see France battling terrorism on its own when it is obvious to all that this fight not only concerns all Western democracies but also requires closer cooperation between allies.

It seems, in fact, that the National Front does fight a lot - it fights the fight against radicalism. For instance, on the subject of closing down websites harbouring jihadi propaganda, Le Pen opposes it, too afraid that affiliate extreme-right websites might suffer the same fate, and be accused of inciting hatred.

Also, Le Pen keeps pointing her finger at immigrants and refugees, but an overwhelming majority of the suicide bombers who struck Paris were French nationals.

Stopping refugees from arriving in France is not going to solve the problem of homegrown jihadists. Besides, Le Pen's continued support of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, will do little to curtail ISIL's expanding reach in Syria and Iraq.

According to Fourest, secularism and feminism are the two most powerful weapons in the fight against radicalisation at home, however, she says: "Marine Le Pen's party is the least secular of France and the least feminist."

If elected this week, the National Front said that it would cut subsidies to associations helping women in impoverished areas gain access to services, such as abortion clinics.

That six million French voters now trust Marine Le Pen to keep them safe from terrorism is certainly a tribute to the National Front's cunning rhetoric; but it is also, sadly, a defeat for France.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera