French far-right hopes to build on local poll success

Marine Le Pen speaks at a FN meeting (Dec 2010)
Image caption Ms Le Pen polled nearly one in five of the votes cast in the 2012 presidential election

The victory of the far-Right National Front candidate in a French local election in the small south-eastern town of Brignoles could mark a significant moment in the party's move from the political margins to the mainstream.

Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, its founder's daughter, the party is modernising and seeking to change its message.

The aim of the process - sometimes called "de-demonisation" - is to marginalise anti-Semitic and the more strident anti-Muslim rhetoric and to present the Front as a nationalist party of the mainstream right.

Marine Le Pen has even threatened to take legal action against anyone branding the party as "extreme right".

The National Front's critics insist that this is no more than re-packaging; that it is skin-deep.

But the Brignoles result is only the latest indicator suggesting that this tactic - renewal or re-packaging, call it what you will - is working.

Recent opinion polls have suggested that the National Front could emerge with the largest share of the vote in France at the next European elections.

Marine Le Pen herself stands at joint-third in a poll asking voters to list who they hope to see playing an important role in the months and years to come.

Caution is of course needed, not just about opinion polls but also about the predictive value of local election results where turnout is in any case relatively low.

Changing tack

The National Front's arrival on the French political scene was announced at a local election in the town of Dreux outside Paris in 1984, when it won 17% of the vote in an alliance with the mainstream right.

Image caption In the Brignoles local election, the FN's Laurent Lopez easily defeated a centre-right candidate

This was seen as an important step in "normalising" the Party's xenophobic anti-immigrant message.

Further successes followed. It won 11% at the European elections of 1984. In 1986, when proportional representation was used for National Assembly elections, it won 35 seats in parliament.

In 1989 in a by-election with a return to the old two-ballot system that put smaller parties at a disadvantage, it still broke through in Dreux to win a parliamentary seat.

And in the 2002 presidential election, the front's then-leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, beat the Socialist contender to go through to the second and final ballot - an extraordinary upheaval.

Marine Le Pen, who took over the reins from her father in 2011, won a remarkable 17.9% of the vote at the presidential election the following year.

She decided to take the party in a different direction - tactically, at least, to move it closer to the mainstream right - and the opinion polls and a smattering of election outcomes suggest that this new strategy is gaining traction.

Indeed, there are reasons to think that this wave of the National Front's rise may reach a higher waterline and be more successful than its previous surges.

Keeping mum

For one thing, the French economy is being battered by forces that neither of the mainstream political camps of left and right seem able to contend with.

The Left is in disarray and much of its electorate demobilised. The results in Brignoles confirmed that.

Also the power of an appeal to "Republican solidarity" - a union of mainstream left and right to see off the political extreme, as happened at the 2002 presidential election - seems to have much less appeal.

Among the mainstream right, leaders are deeply divided in their attitudes to Marine Le Pen's rise.

For some, the response is to harden their own rhetoric in order to appeal to front voters. But this has the unintended effect of simply validating the Front's own message.

Tellingly, many of the mainstream right's leaders, when asked if they would urge a vote for a Socialist at the next presidential election if Marine Le Pen were to get through to the second round, simply refuse to give an answer.

One does not have to take the National Front on its own terms to see that Marine Le Pen is changing its outward appearance.

But French experts insist that it remains a party rooted in its far-right origins.

The National Front draws on a peculiarly French political tradition and it is prospering amid a broader wave of populism in Europe in response to the economic crisis. We could yet hear a lot more about Marine Le Pen.

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