Marine Le Pen: 'Detoxifying' France's National Front
The daughter of France's National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen is on a mission to polish the party's image, in the months before the 2012 presidential election. Can she match her father's second-place finish in 2002? She claims she can win.
As I pushed open the heavy wooden door at the entrance of Marine Le Pen's campaign headquarters, my eyes focused on a bright green tree, in a field stretching into the distance.
It did not take long to realise it was one of those trompe l'oeil fixings you find in Parisian courtyards - painted wooden structures, designed to deceive the eye.
But would that deceptive surface be a metaphor for the woman I had come to see in her presidential campaign base in Paris's chic eighth arrondissement?
She is a leader who has spent the last 10 months trying to detoxify, or (as she would say) de-demonise a political brand known for its anti-immigrant platform.
The name Le Pen has been a divisive fixture of French politics for as long as I can remember.
Teaching English near Bordeaux in the 1980s, every day I used to pass five huge letters painted on a bridge - LE PEN.
Before long, someone had added an I and an S.
Years later, I was the BBC's man in Paris when Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the establishment by entering a presidential run-off.
At the end of two frenzied weeks, I watched people vote for Jacques Chirac with clothes pegs on their noses. This was not love for the pungent president but loathing for his opponent - a man who had once dismissed the Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of history".
So the main question facing Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter is can she escape from the party's history, especially one so closely associated with her family name?
There was no name of any kind on the door when we arrived - no Le Pen, no National Front.
Just four cryptic initials: CMLP - standing, we concluded, for Marine Le Pen's Committee.
A cheerful receptionist ushered us into a meeting room where a huge black and white picture of a zebra stared from the wall.
On a shelf by the window, there was more ebony and ivory - four giant chess pieces, two black and two white.
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On the other side of the room, campaign posters screamed a less harmonious vision of France - one of rising crime and insecurity, of 203,000 immigrants arriving each year. This, they indicated, was the result of President Sarkozy's failed policies.
A group of pale, dark-haired young men milled around, some offering us greetings, others not.
All the women seemed young too. There was no evidence of the older, more traditional National Front generation.
We waited for another camera crew to depart. We were clearly part of a conveyor-belt media offensive, designed to convince France and the world that Marine Le Pen is a serious presidential contender - and that the spring-time opinion polls suggesting she was France's most popular politician were not an anomaly.
Eventually we were shown into her room and told politely - but forcefully - that Madame Le Pen would do the interview at her desk. This is not what space-loving cameramen like to hear. So as we rearranged the furniture, I took in the room's contents.
They included a diagonally-hung blue flag with the single word "liberte" (unaccompanied by "egalite" or "fraternite"). There was a hardback book about the navy - sent by a supporter, we were told - with the word "Marine" in the title. On the desk itself was a guide to the Gold Standard - an economic idea from the past, which she believes can be part of a post-euro future.
And then she entered - a smiling blonde woman, wearing a sharp black trouser suit.
She exuded calm and charm, asking us to check her make-up and joking about a howling cat outside.
Her handshake was not as firm, her voice not as deep as I had expected. It was only when she laughed that she really resembled her father. Is this him, perhaps, having the last laugh?
There was no press officer in the room and no notes, just a chord-striking, populist message - anti-globalisation, anti-Brussels and anti-creeping Islamification.
Her broad remedy - more national sovereignty.
She said she had kicked the racists out of the party but was vague about her father's responsibility for their presence in it, in the first place. She condemned the demonisation - not the man considered by many to be the demon.
Her folded arms were a sign this was not comfortable territory.
She said she would slash immigration by 95% but it was not entirely clear how. France - as she put it - must not be a suction pump for the world's misery.
The National Front has always opposed the euro - which she now dismisses as an idea whose time has come... and gone.
When I asked whether she would unilaterally withdraw from the single currency, she replied: "When I'm president, in a few months time, the eurozone probably won't exist."
Her main opponents she dismissed as two sides of the same establishment coin. "There is a bit less hostility towards the newly-elected Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, so he will probably be my second-round challenger," she told me.
With the interview over, we rearranged the furniture again. I could not help noticing that Marine Le Pen had been googling her own name.
A name that shows no signs of disappearing from France's political landscape.
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