A polished Le Pen maintains gritty image in French vote

‘I’m the candidate of the people’

PARIS — The months of grueling campaigning have polished her image. The driving ambition has been softened to widen her appeal to French voters.

But Marine Le Pen has not lost the gritty, populist edge that speaks to the common man and the passion for her far-right cause as she heads into Sunday’s presidential runoff election against centrist Emmanuel Macron.

“I’m the candidate of the people,” Le Pen said at a heated debate Wednesday night.

“I’m the candidate of France as we love it,” she added. “I am the candidate of the nation that protects — that protects our jobs, that protects the security of our fellow citizens, our borders, protects us against unfair international competition and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Le Pen’s authoritarian bent and propensity for sarcasm mostly have been hidden under layers of practiced composure. She contends her bold ambition is guided only by her love of “eternal France.”

“I was never fascinated by power,” she said in a recent interview on state-run television. Power, she said, “is a tool … not an end in itself.”

If elected, it is the people who will have power, Le Pen said, adding that she would be their proxy.

At her final rally Thursday night in a Picardy village, she sought to embody those suffering in France, saying she “was the widow of the farmer who killed himself because he couldn’t take it anymore,” and the taxi driver losing money to “uberization.”

The 48-year-old mother of three portrays herself as the guardian of a disabused France, where citizens are losing their culture to an encroaching Islam, their identity to “massive immigration” and their sovereignty to the European Union.

As president, she said she plans to open the way to referendums initiated by citizens, to quickly regain control of the country’s borders and bring back the French franc, and to create a “battle plan against Islamic terrorism.”

At rallies or in interviews, Le Pen evokes only victory, saying, “When I am president …”

Her far-right values were forged at home. Born Marion Anne Perrine Le Pen in 1968 in a western Paris suburb, the far-right leader was weaned on family dramas.

She is the youngest of three daughters of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the firebrand politician who co-founded the National Front party.

She says she was “raised on honey and the acid of politics,” a reference to her privileged life and the weight of her larger-than-life father and his populism.

“To be the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen was not always easy,” she said in a recent interview on the BFM TV station. But to be his daughter was to follow in his footsteps, she suggested, calling politics “the virus one has within.”

The French media relished recounting the divorce of her parents in her teen years. In a reflection of that bitter separation, her mother, Pierrette Lalanne, posed for Playboy in 1987, partly dressed in a maid’s costume. The magazine quoted her as saying she was responding to her husband’s Playboy interview in which he said she could become a housekeeper if she needed money.

For years, Marine Le Pen had no relations with her mother, but today “there is lots of love between Mama and me,” she said.

Le Pen has led her father’s party since 2011, and four years later expelled him when he refused to halt the anti-Semitic provocations that were undermining her bid to make the National Front an acceptable political alternative — and hurting her dream of becoming president.

The anti-establishment Le Pen used local, regional and European elections to build a party machine to serve her ambitions.

The lawyer-turned politician ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012. Two years later, the National Front won 11 towns in municipal elections, and her party performed better than any in France in elections for the European Parliament, where she co-presides over a far-right group. She has been a European lawmaker since 2004.

Since 2010, she has served as a regional councillor for northern France, a hardscrabble land where she feels at home.

Twice divorced, Marine Le Pen shuns public appearances with her long-time companion, Louis Aliot, a National Front vice-president who lives in far-away Perpignan and has said he would not become “first man” if she wins.

Le Pen is nothing if not loyal. Old friends from her Parisian law school days — members of a radical student group known for violence and anti-Semitism — hold key roles in her inner circle and are at the centre of an alleged party financing scheme. The case raises questions about Le Pen as she balances radical forces in the party with people she has won over from the mainstream left and right.

Le Pen has a soft touch that appeals to voters once too timid to vote for the extreme right — but her steely resolve and sharp tongue can be just as cutting as her father’s.

At Wednesday’s debate, Le Pen portrayed Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, as an elitist candidate of the system she rejects.

She said his meeting with Angela Merkel was to “seek the benediction” of the German chancellor.

“Either way,” she said, “France will be led by a woman; either me or Madame Merkel.”

But there were times in the insult-filled debate that the usually unflappable Le Pen appeared vulnerable.

Macron said Le Pen stirred up the hatred and the anger of voters the way her father did, calling her “the high priestess of fear.”

“That’s what sustains you. That’s what sustained your father for decades. That’s what nourished the extreme right and that is what created you,” Macron said. “You are its parasite.”

Le Pen retorted: “What class!”

Elaine Ganley, The Associated Press

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