Marine Le Pen: Taking French National Front to new highs and lows

Marine Le Pen during campaigning for the 2015 regional elections Image copyright AP
Image caption Ms Le Pen has sharply divided public opinion with her attacks on illegal immigration

"Nothing can stop us now," was Marine Le Pen's verdict on the regional elections that saw France's National Front attract a record 6.8 million voters.

After her party came out top in the first round of the regional poll - with 28% of the vote - on 6 December, Ms Le Pen declared that France's political elite was "crumbling".

PM Manuel Valls warned ahead of the second round that triumph for her anti-immigration party could lead to "civil war". But the FN was beaten into third place after electors voted tactically to keep the far right out.

Widespread anxiety about immigration and the fear of further terrorist attacks following the Paris attacks were believed to have boosted the FN's support.

Both Marine Le Pen - a candidate in the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie - and her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who stood in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, attracted more than 40% in the first round. And both lost to the Republican candidates when the Socialist candidates pulled out.

'Psychological rupture'

Ms Le Pen was aiming to boost her profile ahead of France's presidential elections in 2017.

After taking over leadership of the FN from her father, a convicted racist, in January 2011, she has managed to change the party's image.

Born the youngest of Jean-Marie Le Pen's three daughters in 1968, she was eight years old when the family flat in Paris was blown up in a bomb attack, though nobody was hurt.

It was 1972, four years after her father had founded the National Front.

More trauma was to come when she was 16 and her mother Pierrette ran off with the man writing a biography of Jean-Marie.

Jean-Marc Simon, Marine Le Pen's biographer, says: "[The] brutal departure of the mother was a drama for Marine.

"She was only 16 and very close to her mother - they had the same rhythm, they cooked together, she followed her as much as possible. So there's a huge psychological rupture there."

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That abandonment was to bring Marine much closer to her father, Mr Simon argues.

The youngest daughter became steeped in politics from a young age, accompanying her father to meetings and rallies.

She first campaigned with him when she was 13 years old.

But their relationship would turn sour decades later in a very public feud that threatened to plunge the party into crisis.

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Media caption Jean-Marie Le Pen: 'I will not bow down'

The rift was laid bare after Mr Le Pen gave a radio interview in April 2015 in which he repeated an old anti-Semitic slur that the Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of history".

His daughter denounced his comments and he was expelled from the FN in August.

Defending illegal immigrants

Before this, Marine Le Pen trained as a lawyer at one of France's top law schools.

She signed up as a public defender who would take any case where the defendant could not afford a lawyer.

That meant acting at times for illegal immigrants, something some of her rivals in the FN have held against her.

Paris barrister Basile Ader, who faced Ms Le Pen across the courtroom on occasion, recalls her as "a good lawyer [who] worked hard, did her homework and was on top of things".

"I admired how she kept her cool and was able to maintain normal professional relationships despite being burdened with the notoriety of her father."

In 1998, she ceased practising and became the head of the FN's legal department.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Marine Le-Pen and her niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, won more than 40% in the first round of the regional vote, breaking previous records for the party

After years of fighting and losing French parliamentary elections, she was elected to the European parliament in 2004 and remains an MEP, representing North-West France.

With her two divorces, steely femininity and cigarette-roughened voice, the mother-of-three comes across as far more "normal" than most of her political rivals, says the BBC's Hugh Schofield.

After taking over leadership in 2011, she based her approach on emphasising threats to the French way of life.

The fight against "Islamification" was still high on the party's agenda - but so was the problem of globalisation, the EU and the euro.

In the 2012 presidential election, Ms Le Pen came third, but with a higher percentage of the vote than her father got in 2002.

In last year's European elections, the FN topped the polls - the party's first victory in a national election

'Inherit or merit'

Ms Le Pen has objected to the use of the term "far right", arguing that it marginalises a party with significant support.

She has sought to emphasise the FN's opposition to the euro and advocacy of protectionism and the fact the party today has grown to include Jewish members.

Nonetheless, Ms Le Pen has sharply divided public opinion with her attacks on illegal immigration, which she has likened to a tsunami.

"French citizenship should be either inherited or merited," she declared during her 2012 presidential campaign.

And in October 2015 she went on trial in Lyon on charges of inciting racial hatred, after comparing Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.

Ms Le Pen insists she did not commit any offence.

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