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Le Pen - queen of France's far right, now seen as kingmaker

posted 29 Apr 2012, 11:22 by Mpelembe   [ updated 29 Apr 2012, 11:23 ]

Marine Le Pen's strong showing in the first round of the French presidential election means candidates will be keen to woo her Front National voters for the second round.

PARIS, FRANCE (APRIL 21, 2002) (TF1) - Marine Le Pen, the queen of France's far right, became the kingmaker in the wake of first round results of the French presidential election which saw her garner 17.9% of the popular vote -- the highest ever showing for her party.

The former solicitor grew up at the heart of the National Front -- the party founded by her father and led by him for decades. Jean-Marie Le Pen was the powerhouse of the party, dragging it from the French political fringes to become a formidable electoral force.

Unquestionably the high watermark of his leadership was the shock 2002 presidential election result where, thanks to fragmented opposition from the left, Jean-Marie Le Pen came second in the first round, allowing him to enter the run-off which ended in a landslide for the ultimate victor Jacques Chirac.

Marine Le Pen was to be found at her father's side during his patriotic presidential rallies, ultimately abandoning the Paris Bar in 1998 to dedicate herself to the party.

Following an unsuccessful presidential bid in 2007, the elderly Jean-Marie Le Pen stood down from the leadership in 2011, making way for his daughter who was crowned as his successor by the National Front Congress in January of that year.

She has since set about detoxifying the party's brand, whilst retaining its traditional right-wing core and aiming not to alienate the grassroots.

The tall, striking blonde took the stage in a sunny May Day rally last year to make an appeal to more moderate National Front voters. Gone are the days of her father's controversial pronouncements about the Holocaust.

"Whether we are men or women, heterosexual or homosexual, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist, first of all, we are French," she said to cheers from the crowd.

That said, her party's policies are those of a typical European far right outfit.

She takes a tough line on immigration and security, aiming to cut legal immigration to 5 percent of the current level and renegotiate EU treaties to give states greater sovereignty and control of their national borders.

She wants to introduce penalties for companies using illegal immigrants and give preference to French nationals for job openings and welfare benefits.

With Nicolas Sarkozy suffering from consistently low opinion poll ratings, a series of surveys indicated that Marine Le Pen posed a potential threat to the incumbent president.

But France's electoral system almost torpedoed Le Pen's presidential campaign before it had even started when serious doubts were raised about her ability to secure the endorsement of enough elected officials to enter the race.

The electoral system requires candidates to be supported by 500 elected officials if they are to run -- a milestone which for a while looked out of reach for the National Front leader.

Having had her call for a rule change to allow endorsements to be given anonymously rejected by the constitutional courts, she finally entered the race in March, saying at a campaign meeting, "From today onwards, millions of citizens can have a fresh hope, will enter the campaign, and will finally be represented in the elections."

Despite her attempts to rehabilitate the party, Le Pen remains a controversial figure in France -- her public appearances are frequently subject to heckles and her campaign posters are vandalised.

But she entered election day on Sunday April 22 looking buoyant and was vindicated when the results were announced that evening. With 17.9 % of the popular vote, Le Pen enjoyed the most resounding public endorsement of a National Front candidate in history.

On hearing the results she took to the stage confidently.

"France's fight is just beginning. Dear friends, French people, nothing will ever be the same again," she told her cheering supporters.

She now finds herself as the kingmaker in an electoral contest which has seen Nicolas Sarkozy court her supporters, calling their votes votes of "suffering". He has accused those who dismiss the National Front's supporters as extremists for not respecting the French electorate.

Meanwhile his Socialist opponent has said that some voters supported Le Pen out of anger, saying that he will listen to them, but not go after their votes.

Le Pen has said that she intends to advise her supporters how to vote in the second round at a May Day rally.

Whilst it remains highly unlikely that she will officially endorse a candidate, which candidate her voters turn to could decide who is handed the keys to the Elysee on May 6.