Sweeping into a packed Paris hall, blonde hair shimmering atop a black trouser suit, Marine Le Pen promised her foot-stomping, tricolore-waving audience a big surprise in the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday.
“We will put them in their place; we will shatter their certitudes …Sarkozy and Hollande lead the interests of the rich and powerful …but, your lordships, lay another place on Sunday because the people are coming to sit at your table,” she shouted to wild applause.
In her first electoral campaign since taking over from her octogenarian father as leader of the National Front, the twice-divorced mother of three whose mission is to modernise and broaden the party’s appeal, aims to restage the spectacular electoral upset of 2002. This was when Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned France by knocking out the socialist Lionel Jospin and taking on Jacques Chirac, the eventual winner, in the run-off.
Some supporters at Ms Le Pen’s last big rally before Sunday’s vote believes she can make it. “She will be in the second round,” said Patricia, 52, who declined to give her second name. “The opinion polls canvass only a small number of people. Marine Le Pen is the only candidate to talk about the real problems France faces today: unemployment, off-shoring and immigration.”
Ms Le Pen has set herself an ambitious target of attracting 20 per cent of the vote, a target that seemed within reach in January when, quick off the campaign blocks, she captured 18-19 per cent.
But she slipped to 15-16 per cent last month after President Nicolas Sarkozy entered the campaign and has since only slightly improved her position. This week, one poll had her up a point at 17 per cent while another had the National Front down a point at 14 per cent.
Nevertheless, these scores are still high compared with the outcome of the first round in 2007, when the National Front took 10.4 per cent of the vote and is in the ballpark of the 2002 first-round victory when it polled 16.9 per per cent.
“Ms Le Pen is doing better or about as well as her father,” says Madani Cheurfa, of Sciences-Po university.
Florian Philippot, strategic director of her campaign, says the votes that Ms le Pen has lost in the polls have been to Mr Sarkozy because the centre-right president “has focused his campaign on her themes – less immigration, security, a Europe that protects – all the promises he made in 2007 and hasn’t kept,” he told the Financial Times. “Now Mr Sarkozy is falling and Marine Le Pen is climbing again.”
The gap between Ms Le Pen and Mr Sarkozy has widened from as little as 1 percentage point in January to more than 10 points today, a distance that Pascal Perrineau, of Sciences-Po university, writing in Le Monde newspaper, believes is now too wide to be breached.
Barring an upset, the big fight now for Ms Le Pen is to secure third place ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far left candidate, whose spectacular rise in the polls – from 7 per cent to about 14 per cent – has been the biggest surprise so far of the campaign.
The strong showing by the far left and far right showed that the economic crisis was the backdrop to the campaign, Mr Cheurfa said. “If you add up the votes attributed to Ms Le Pen and those of Mr Mélenchon and the smaller extremist parties, you get to 30 per cent, which means that almost one-third of the electorate is in a pattern of protest against the political and economic system. Marine Le Pen fulfils that role very well but it does not constitute a programme for the future and it will reach its limits.”
At the rally, Ms Pen rammed home an anti-system message and attacked “ultra-liberal financial capitalism”, as she urged her mostly white and male audience of 6,000 to “make yourselves heard, create your anger, move, this election is yours”.
She lambasted Mr Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande as “Siamese twins” crushing the interests of the popular and middle classes in favour of a liberal elite.
Kevin Brocheray, a dental student and party activist, said: “Without the crisis, her message would have less resonance but the crisis has put the spotlight on her solutions, which are the right ones. Charles de Gaulle would be turning in his grave if he saw the direction Europe has taken as a supra-national system instead of a Europe of nations.”
As the audience chanted “This is our home” and “We will win”, a smiling Ms Le Pen thundered: “Yes, we will win.”
Mr Philippot of the National Front, says that, even if Ms Le Pen does not make it through to the second round, her focus on a broad range of subjects means that “she has acquired a real dimension. People see that she can talk about all subjects. She has a complete programme and that’s a big victory”.
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