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FFrom her housing estate north of Marseille, Elisabeth, 68, who once voted for the left, will return a ballot for far-right Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election this month. “People thought Marine was mean,” she said. “Now they realize she’s not. Other politicians take his ideas. They all talk like her now.

Elisabeth left school at 16 and worked for a shoemaker, in factories and as a cleaner, but her €800 pension barely covers bills and food. “I live on credit, overdrawn in the middle of the month,” she said. “I make a weak stew and it lasts me three days. But Le Pen will lower taxes and put money in our pockets. She agrees with Le Pen’s anti-immigration stance. She feels that there are more and more “Europeans” in the multi-ethnic north of Marseilles and is worried about crime. “I was assaulted twice, once for a necklace, once for a cigarette,” she said. Society is tense and divided, she believes, but Le Pen will “calm things down”.

After a decade of trying to detoxify the booted image of the far-right anti-immigration party she succeeded her father in, Le Pen achieved her highest ratings and popularity this week. Polls show she not only reached the second-round final against centrist President Emmanuel Macron on April 24, but has significantly closed the gap. An Ifop poll alarmed Macron’s camp by showing her reaching 47% from her 53%, the narrowest margin yet and far closer than when he beat her to 66% in 2017.

Political opponents still decry Le Pen’s National Rally party as racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, but polls show that while society once dismissed it as the “devil” of the republic, public perception of her softened. In his third presidential bid, Le Pen, 53, became France’s second-favorite political figure behind former Macron prime minister Edouard Philippe in Elabe’s latest monthly poll.

The Rise and Rise of France’s Far-Right Marine Le Pen |  French presidential election 2022
Marine Le Pen focused her campaign on the cost of living and the feeling of social inequality. Photography: Alain ROBERT/SIPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Le Pen’s focus on the cost of living – and rising energy prices likely to be exacerbated by the war in Ukraine – allowed her to overlook her past ties to Vladimir Putin, whom she visited in 2017. “She is dangerous,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said last week. “She could win this presidential election.” During a walkabout in western France, Macron warned against people “looking away” from the reality of his radical agenda and “finding it more enjoyable”.

The presidential election campaign has been the most right-wing in France’s modern history. In addition to Le Pen, another far-right candidate has emerged: former TV pundit Eric Zemmour, who has convictions for inciting racial hatred. Using more incendiary language than Le Pen, he entrenched the discredited “great replacement” conspiracy theory – in which he claims local French populations could be replaced by newcomers, making France a predominantly Muslim country on the brink of the Civil War – into the mainstream. debate. Between them, Le Pen and Zemmour have about 30% of the votes in the first round. Traditional right-wing Republicans and their struggling candidate, Valérie Pécresse, have stepped up their rhetoric on immigration as they vie with Zemmour.

Instead of harming Le Pen, Zemmour strengthened it. “Something quite amazing happened during this campaign. The radicalism of Eric Zemmour has softened the image of Marine Le Pen,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences-Po Paris. “She is less radical for many voters, she looks less aggressive than Eric Zemmour, she has more respectability.”

The Rise and Rise of France’s Far-Right Marine Le Pen |  French presidential election 2022
Election campaign posters for Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour in Montaigu, western France. Photography: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Le Pen’s hard-line manifesto policies have not changed and overlap with those of Zemmour. She promised a referendum on immigration and a rewrite of the constitution to ensure “France for the French” – where ethnic French people would be given priority over non-French people for social benefits, housing, jobs and services. Health care. The Muslim headscarf, which she describes as “the uniform of totalitarian ideology”, would be banned from the streets and from all public places.

Le Pen’s key themes – concerns about insecurity and crime, a sense of decline and social inequality, and his link between these issues and immigration and a perceived threat from Islamism – took over place in the public debate in recent years.

“The ideas we have always fought for have become the majority opinion,” Jordan Bardella, 26, the party’s rising star and current interim leader, said as he met with voters in Marseille. Queuing to see him, a retired school psychologist from the French Riviera said: “My sister is a doctor, my brother-in-law an architect, we are not the kind of family that voted for Le Pen, but today Today it’s easier to be open about it.

The Rise and Rise of France’s Far-Right Marine Le Pen |  French presidential election 2022
Jordan Bardella takes a selfie with Le Pen supporters during a rally in March in Cogolin, southern France. Photography: Alain ROBERT/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Raphaël Llorca, communications consultant at the Jean Jaurès Foundation think tank and author of a book on Le Pen and Zemmour, The New Masks of the Far Right, said the tone of Le Pen’s campaign was deliberately different this year.

“In previous campaigns, she was very populist, presenting ‘the people against the elite’ in a very aggressive and virulent way. His political strategy was to exploit all different types of anger,” he said. “Now his view is that division and conflict will not work. His political reading of Macronism is that Emmanuel Macron is a president who has divided people – there have been [anti-government] yellow vests demonstrations, demonstrations on the Covid health pass. She calls him the “Chaos President” and says she can “calm” things down. It’s very different. She seeks to demobilize voters who usually turn out to stop her. She wants to anesthetize society’s reflexes against the extreme right, to neutralize its detractors.

Pollsters still consider a presidential victory for Le Pen unlikely, but, for the first time, some analysts see it as an outside possibility. Uncertainties remain over the turnout rate and whether left-leaning voters would again turn out in large numbers to vote for Macron to keep him out.

To soften her image, Le Pen often refers to her love of Bengal cats and her recent graduation as a breeder. “She turned into a nice breeder of cats?” Lies!” Macron’s economy minister Bruno Le Maire said at a recent rally, adding that Le Pen had always pushed “hate speech”.

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