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But for Richard Prasquier, head of the important Jewish umbrella group CRIF, the National Front is among French groups that simply “put a mute button on their anti-Semitism.”

“We will not vote for the National Front,” he declared Feb. 8 in a speech at the annual CRIF dinner, with both Mr. Sarkozy and his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in attendance.

Ms. Le Pen has directed her party’s xenophobic rhetoric toward a new target: Islam.

She made her public entree into the anti-Muslim arena in 2010, railing about Muslims praying in the streets on Friday, the Muslim holy day. She called it a sort of “occupation,” in a reference to the World War II Nazi occupation.

Denying any racism, Ms. Le Pen, like Mr. Sarkozy, usually tackles Islam indirectly, by upholding the sacred French principle of secularism and denouncing globalization.

“It [is] forbidden to consider that France is also its churchbells and inherited cathedrals, and that the sudden eruption on our landscape of proselytizing signs like cathedral-sized mosques or minarets are not necessarily desirable,” she writes in her recently published book “So That France Lives.”

Political challenge

A vote for the National Front is a “vote for civilization,” Ms. Le Pen has said.

But her idea of civilization has alarmed many.

She danced last month at a Vienna ball held annually by far-rightists - an event that coincided this year with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Her attendance was seen by critics as proof that daughter and father are fundamentally alike.

Many also are disquieted by the presence of hard-line extreme rightists still inside the National Front structure, keeping alive fears of radical nationalism. Some, like her father, are directly involved in her campaign.

Mr. Le Pen and his party did poorly in 2007 presidential and legislative elections and ended up nearly broke, forced to sell the party headquarters.

It appears that Ms. Le Pen has revived the party’s fortunes. Polls consistently show her not far behind the second-place Mr. Sarkozy, with 15 percent to 16 percent of the vote - and as high as 20.5 percent last month. Mr. Hollande enjoys a comfortable lead.

But holding back Ms. Le Pen’s ambitions is her struggle to secure the 500 signatures of local officials required to formalize her candidacy, suggesting she has yet to convince all of France that the National Front has changed. She needs to collect the signatures by March 16 in order to qualify for the election.

Ms. Le Pen formally requested a change in the French Constitution that would keep the names of signatories anonymous, thus protecting mayors who sign on her behalf from any community backlash. The Constitutional Council is to rule by Wednesday.

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