PARIS — Marine Le Pen has purged the old guard from her father’s extreme-right National Front party and is reaching out to Jews, maligned under his leadership, in her bid to be the next president of France.
Daughter may be more dangerous than dad, many contend, as she sugarcoats an old anti-immigrant message and vies for a real slice of power.
Polls suggest that several million people may vote for the far-right leader in April - and that momentum, the party hopes, could translate into seats in Parliament in June legislative elections.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to woo these voters into his conservative camp with themes like French identity that mimic Ms. Le Pen’s.
Ms. Le Pen, 43, a divorced mother of three, took over the leadership of the party last year, replacing her charismatic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 83. He used his oratory skills to denounce the “decadence” of French society, promote his anti-immigration “French first” agenda and attempt to cast doubt upon the Holocaust.
She has concocted a name for her clean-up operation to trade the stigma of anti-Semitism for respectability: “de-demonize” the party. An official support group that includes blacks, Jews and North African Muslims was set up to help chase the demons away.
Gilbert Collard, a prominent lawyer who became a National Front trophy when he joined Ms. Le Pen’s team, said that displays of xenophobia, racism or anti-Semitism will be reason for exclusion from the party.
But experts say the party remains racist at heart.
“I think there is a strategy of dissimulation,” said Sylvain Crepon, a specialist on far-right ideologies at the University of Paris.
“She has understood that the National Front will never reach power alone,” he said. The only way to get access is via alliances “so she breaks into the sanitized zone” of respectable politics. “I think, effectively, that it’s more dangerous.”
Even if her chances are slim in the two-round presidential elections in April and May, Ms. Le Pen has set her political sights high. Her party hopes that a strong presidential showing will allow the National Front to gain a parliamentary presence for the first time since 1986 and have a say in setting the national agenda.
“Jean-Marie Le Pen didn’t want to be a minister, didn’t want to be president. That wasn’t his objective, so fundamentally he really wasn’t dangerous,” said sociologist Erwan Lecoeur, who studies the extreme right.
“Today, it’s the reverse. Marine Le Pen threatens the political system since she says she wants to run things and seems able to do so.”
In contrast to her father, convicted of racism and anti-Semitism, Marine Le Pen has extended her hand to Jews in France and Israel. She met briefly with Israel’s U.N. representative on a trip last year to the United States and has given several interviews to Israeli media.