Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right presidential candidate, is competing in her first presidential election since taking her controversial father’s place as the head of the National Front.
Since replacing Jean-Marie Le Pen, her then 83-year-old father in January, Le Pen has embarked on the ambitious task of the ‘de-diabolisation’ of the party, or making it palatable to a broader segment of the French population.
She has widely been described as being more moderate and contemporary than her father, a former paratrooper accused of torture during the Algerian Independence War.
Despite being raised in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly, her affable manner and charisma have earned her many loyal supporters amongst voters tired of politicians they view as out of touch with ordinary citizens.
Earlier in the campaign, she attempted to focus on issues that go beyond the older Le Pen’s standard fare of opposition to immigration.
But her economic policies were criticised as lacking in depth, and left an opening for Nicolas Sarkozy to court her supporters.
Return to the far-right
Sarkozy’s campaign has echoed Le Pen’s policies on reintroducing controls at France’s national borders, policies to offer preferential treatment for French products, and attacking the availability of halal foods in France.
As her ratings dropped in the polls, and the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon overtook her position as the third-ranking candidate, Le Pen has returned to the safe territory of the far-right.
When her father was still the party’s leader, resisting calls from his daughter and her allies for a more moderate party, he told her: “No one wants a nice National Front”.
Commentators are awaiting the first round of voting on April 22 for the verdict on his declaration.
Every opinion poll in recent weeks has given Le Pen 14 to 16 per cent of the vote. This is less than her father received in the 2002 presidential election, the year he baet the Socialist candidate and made it to the second round of voting.
“To get less than the 16.87 per cent that Jean-Marie Le Pen won in 2002 would upset me. This would be a step backwards,” she told the Nancy daily newspaper this week.
France’s intervention in Libya last year was a folly, she argues, because it paved the way for political Islam.
She accuses Sarkozy of having been manipulated into the Libyan intervention by the Gulf state of Qatar, along with figures from the French Left, including the activist-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.
“Certainly, Gaddafi was not a good man, but Sarkozy received him with extravagant ceremony, in humiliating circumstances,” she said during her speech in Nantes, referring to the former Libyan leader’s 2007 visit to Paris, during which he notoriously pitched his tent on the Elysee lawn.
On foreign policy, Le Pen wants to immediately withdraw France from Afghanistan, and says the country should never have contributed troops to a US-led war effort.
She is skeptical of the European Union and globalisation and wants France to end all multicultural policies.
The veneer of tolerance has worked for voters like Veronique Chaveau, a scientific researcher from Anger, who told Al Jazeera at the rally in Nantes that she had signed up to the National Front as soon as Le Pen took charge.
“She doesn’t make racist or xenophobic statements,” she said, explaining that she never would have voted for the older Le Pen.
Chaveau, who said she has voted for left-wing or centrist candidates in previous elections, said that economic and physical insecurity were the reasons she had signed up to the National Front.
Sarkozy may have increasingly focused on these very issues in the presidential campaign, but she said she found him insincere.
“As soon as she [Le Pen] has a good idea, he takes it,” she said. “She was talking about these things a year ago.”
Francois Adam, meanwhile, is a longtime member of the party who sees little real difference in the politics of father and daughter.
Both the former and current National Front leaders, he said at a rally in Nantes, are the only politicians he trusts.
“For me personally, this is the authentic truth,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We’ve had the Socialists, we’ve had the UMP [Sarkozy’s ruling party], why not five years of Le Pen? She is the only one capable of putting France back on track.”