Le Pen's Daughter Takes Over National Front Party

In France, the far right National Front party has a new leader. Marine Le Pen has taken over from her father, who founded the party. She wants to move the long vilified party closer to the country's political mainstream.

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A far right party in France has a new leader and is seeking new political life. The party is called the National Front. Under its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, it gained support in the past with its attacks on immigrants and extreme nationalist views. Now the founder's daughter Marine Le Pen wants to move her party closer to the mainstream. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Marine Le Pen took the stage in triumph in January at her party's convention, standing next to her aging father Jean Marie Le Pen. He founded the party in 1972, and shocked the country when he reached the final round of the French presidential campaign in 2002. The party declined after that, but Marine believes she can lead it back to national prominence. She laid out her vision for the future.

Ms. MARINE LE PEN (National Front Party): (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Prosperity, influence and French grandeur are within our reach, she told the crowd. Together we can resurrect the eternal France that has inspired humanity for centuries.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. LE PEN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Bleached blond and brash, Marine Le Pen works a crowd with bravado. A decade ago, no one thought Le Pen could ever fill her father's shoes in the macho, traditionalist world of far-right politics. While she supports the party's long-held policies of halting immigration, leaving the European Union and restoring the death penalty, the trained lawyer and twice divorced mother of three says she's a modern woman. She rejects what she calls outdated ideas like homophobia and opposition to abortion.

During the last six months, as Le Pen has campaigned for the leadership, the party says membership has doubled. Twenty-eight-year-old Marie Dubois is one of the party's new members.

Ms. MARIE DUBOIS (National Front Party Member): (Through translator) With her we can have a dignified presidential campaign. She's a bulldozer, but at the same time she has a respectable image.

BEARDSLEY: The National Front has long been a political pariah in France. Sarkozy boasted that he killed the party when many of its voters flocked to support him in 2007. To keep their loyalty, the French president has focused on nationalist and security issues like French identity and expelling Roma.

But the tactic backfired. The increasingly unpopular Sarkozy is accused of pandering to extremists and giving legitimacy to the National Front's platform. Now Sarkozy could see the far right eroding his support in the 2012 presidential election.

(Soundbite of singing)

BEARDSLEY: Members of the National Front sing the Marseillaise as they rally around a statue of Joan of Arc in central Paris. A recent poll showed a fifth of French people now support their ideas.

But Jean Yves Camus, an academic who studies the far right, says agreeing with ideas and voting for a candidate are two different things.

Mr. JEAN YVES CAMUS (Political analyst, IRIS): That's a big difference between the extreme right in Europe and, I would say, what is an acceptable arch conservative right in the United States is. In Europe the extreme right is dependent on the fascist legacy.

BEARDSLEY: Camus says the National Front would have to break with its fascist legacy and everything to do with the Second World War and anti-Semitism to gain real mainstream acceptance.

Just recently, Marine Le Pen sparked a storm of protest when she compared Muslims who pray in the streets outside of mosques in France to the Nazi occupation during World War II. She made no apologies for her remarks.

Ms. LE PEN: (Through translator) There are some good polemics - like those that push the real issues the French are interested in to the forefront. No one wants to talk about these things, but I'm ready to kick the anthill, stir things up and make the political class confront these issues.

BEARDSLEY: Political observers say the biggest difference between Marine Le Pen and her father is that he accepted his place on the fringe of politics, while she really aspires to govern France one day.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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