France’s National Front crowned founder Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine its new leader Sunday, looking to soften the anti-immigrant party’s image before next year’s presidential polls.
While sharing many of her father’s far-right views, the 42-year-old blonde brings with her a less provocative, more telegenic image which the party hopes will give it an electoral breakthrough against President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Despite accusations of racism, polls suggest 17 percent of French voters might back Marine, not enough to put her in the Elysee Palace in 2012, but still a significant electoral headache for the centre-right president.
“I consider us as of now to be in an electoral campaign, first for the cantonal elections (local polls in March), and then of course presidential and legislative ones,” she said in televised comments after being named.
In her maiden speech to supporters, Le Pen struck a less abrasive tone than her father, focusing on the state as the provider of social care, lambasting the effects of globalisation and urging tighter state control of the economy.
But her booming voice and a brief allusion to what she sees as the danger of Islam were reminiscent of her father, who until stepping down this weekend dominated French far-right politics for four decades.
“The choice of globalisation is deregulation . . . demographic submersion and the dilution of our civilisation,” she told the crowd, who waved flags and bellowed: “France for the French!”
She said the state must punish any public official who tries to get around a 1905 law banning the use of public money to construct places of worship such as mosques, and end single-sex swimming sessions in public swimming pools for Muslim women.
As expected, the Euro-MP and National Front deputy leader comfortably beat party rival Bruno Gollnisch to become head of one of Western Europe’s most enduringly influential anti-immigrant movements.
Her 82-year-old father, a one-eyed former paratrooper, founded the party in 1972 and led it until his retirement on Saturday, when he stepped down at the start of its congress in the northern town of Tours.
Party leaders on Sunday crowned him “honorary president” and he is expected to remain a strong presence in the FN.
Under Jean-Marie the Front never broke into government, and he was shunned by other parties, but he succeeded in forcing the mainstream right to compete with him on immigration and law and order issues.
In 2002 he sent shockwaves through the political establishment by coming second in the first round of presidential voting.
Stepping down on Saturday, he rejected the outrage sparked over the years by comments–notably on the Holocaust–that saw him branded a racist and anti-Semite.
Marine is seen as more electable, despite sharing her father’s opposition to immigration and Islam–favourite political issues for far-right parties across Europe, some of which are elbowing their way into government.
“Her speech was wonderful,” said Leopold Jimmy, a supporter and party official from the northwestern region of Normandy. “There is a different atmosphere compared to other meetings of the Front,” he told AFP.
Le Pen’s third and youngest daughter, Marine was born in 1968 in the plush Paris suburb of Neuilly but has built a political base as a local councillor in the working-class industrial towns of the northern Calais region.
Like her father, she has not avoided provoking outrage with outspoken comments. Last month she compared Muslims praying in the streets outside overcrowded mosques in France to the Nazi occupation.
Analysts say she is subtly recasting his hardline positions on Islam and immigration as a positive defence of French values.
Segolene Royal, who is competing to be the opposition Socialist candidate for president next year, said on Sunday that Le Pen was “a more credible and dangerous candidate than her father.”
Marine Le Pen said she would unveil further details of her programme at the party’s headquarters near Paris on Thursday.