Le Pen patient to move beyond the fringe

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Marine Le Pen was keeping her counsel on Monday, apart from saying she had “slept like a baby” after Sunday night’s presidential polls showed her breaking through as the third force in French politics.

The leader of the extreme right National Front, who won the support of almost one in five French people in the election’s first round, said she would not give her “opinion” on whom to back in the decisive second vote until a mass meeting of her supporters on May 1.

But if Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre right incumbent, is hoping this Joan of Arc devotee will ride to his rescue as he tries to close the gap with his front-running Socialist rival, he is setting himself up for a disappointment.

Louis Aliot, the National Front’s vice-president, predicted on Monday that Mr Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party is “very certainly going to implode after the presidential elections”.

It is increasingly clear that the National Front has ambitions beyond just being a “protest vote” against the mainstream parties of the left and right. It believes it can surf a wave of popular disgust about immigration, globalisation, the European Union, industrial decline and joblessness to become the dominant force representing the country’s large number of conservative voters.

Mr Sarkozy and François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, will face off in a final head-to-head poll on May 6 after winning most votes in the first round, although the third-placed National Front supplied the shock of the evening by almost doubling its 2007 score.

While Ms Le Pen is waiting to give her final verdict on the second round, her father Jean-Marie – who founded the anti-immigration, anti-Islam party – believes “Sarkozy is beaten” and that his daughter has nothing to gain by backing him.

Ms Le Pen has herself stated her ambition to “become the chief of the opposition” should Mr Hollande become president, as predicted by opinion polls.

As a result, the party is in the early stages of planning what is expected to be a full-frontal assault on the country’s parliamentary elections in June, where it hopes to pick up as many as 15 seats – including one for an increasingly self-assured Ms Le Pen.

“I am the chief of a troop and I want a [parliamentary] group,” is how she describes it. In her only comments on Monday, she said she was taking time to examine the presidential results “precisely, by department, town and canton” to work out her strategy for the National Assembly elections.

Mr Aliot said given the “current state of affairs” of the two mainstream parties, the Front’s own ambitions and the need to stay true to its supporters, there could be “no other choice than neither Sarkozy, nor Hollande”.

For some Sarkozy strategists there remains the hope that many Front voters were making a one-off protest. But pollsters say this ignores how far the working class feels betrayed by the political elite and Mr Sarkozy. “There is uncontestably a strong vote that will stay with the Front,” said Brice Teinturier of Ipsos. “You can’t explain this by saying it’s just a protest.”

There is also an admission that the disciplined and telegenic Ms Le Pen has made her party appear slightly less nasty, at least in public, through a process of “detoxification”although many Muslims would not agree.

This was reflected in Sunday night’s vote, where Ms Le Pen managed to expand her support beyond its traditional base among male factory workers in the industrially blighted north and east of the country.

The country’s so-called “invisibles”, who back Ms le Pen, now include increasing numbers of women, countryside-dwellers and poorly paid clerical workers among the hard-pushed lower middle classes.

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