Le Pen's French National Front eyes route to power

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Paris

Image source, AFP/GETTY
Image caption, Marine Le Pen was uncontested by any other candidate at the party's congress

It was a result the leaders of France's other political parties could only dream of.

Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front (FN) party, was re-elected on Sunday with 100% of her party's vote.

After leading the Front to a string of electoral gains over the past three years, she stood for re-election uncontested by any other candidate.

But what does her leadership mean for the party, and for the country, as it heads towards a presidential race in 2017?

Sometimes in politics it is the medium that counts.

'Devil's cloak'

The core message from the National Front - for greater nationalism and an end to immigration - has not really changed for decades, but the messenger has.

And she has one overriding goal: to make the National Front electable as a party of government in France.

For a party widely seen as a political pariah a few years ago, and which has struggled to top 20% of the popular vote in previous presidential elections, it is an ambitious goal.

But Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father as party leader three years ago, has already propelled her party to power in 11 French towns (12 if you include the FN-backed independent mayor in Beziers), two seats in the Senate, and top position in the European Parliament elections this year.

Image source, AP
Image caption, Jean-Marie Le Pen led the National Front until 2011

The number of seats controlled by the National Front here in France may still be small, but the sudden burst of new support for the party signals a deep shift in French politics - partly down to a shift in the party's own strategy.

In the past three years, Marine Le Pen has put a lot of effort into "detoxifying" her party - ridding it of the racist stigma and neo-Nazi links it attracted under her father's leadership.

"The devil's cloak that we were forced to wear has been removed," she told me last week as she prepared for the party congress.

"The French are beginning to see us as we really are. Our party was never racist. None of our proposals are based on race or religion. We are patriots: we welcome and work with all who are French."

Media caption, The BBC's Lucy Williamson spoke to Marine Le Pen

So worried is party headquarters about personal remarks undermining their electoral gains, it has issued a handbook to every newly elected official, with helpful reminders to "remain polite" during debates - along with warnings not to subsidise "political" anti-racism groups, or events such as Muslim celebrations.

The southern coastal town of Frejus, an hour's drive from Nice, is something of a showcase for this new, more tolerant face of the National Front.

Its mayor, 26-year-old David Rachline, was elected here six months ago - the son of a Jewish man and one of the party's rising stars.

At the town's small weekly market, piles of rich saucisson lie with bright vegetables and cheaply-made clothes under the palm trees at the edge of town.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, Mayor David Rachline divides voters in Frejus with some people unhappy about social welfare cuts

Many locals milling around the stalls are positive about Mr Rachline's strong policing, free parking, and support for local shopkeepers.

Others point to his cuts to social welfare programmes and the removal of the European Union flag from the town hall as signs that the party does not intend to protect the interests of everyone.

'Traditional beliefs'

A short distance away, Driss Maaroufi is preparing for prayers at the local mosque.

Or rather, the local prayer tent.

As the temperature dips towards freezing, Muslims in Frejus gather each week under the greying canvas, while a brand new mosque stands empty and unpainted, on the plot next door.

Mayor Rachline has promised voters here a referendum on whether the new mosque can go ahead.

"The National Front isn't for everyone," Imam Marroufi tells me.

"It's not for the Muslims. We're citizens in this town too, but it doesn't represent us. That party hasn't changed at all - not one bit. It's got worse."

Islam has become something of a focus for the National Front, which labels it as one of the biggest challenges to France, alongside the European Union, and globalisation.

Ms Le Pen is opposed to providing pork-free school meals for students, and to the wearing of any Muslim headscarf in public.

But she says her objections are based solely on the need to protect France's national identity.

"It's not for us to say whether Islam is compatible with the French Republic," she told me, "it's for the Muslims. Those who say it's contrary to their religion can leave. It's not the Republic that has to adapt to their demands. Our traditions come from Christianity; why should we have to change?"

Russian money

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert in far-right politics at the Institute of International Relations in Paris, says the party's preoccupations now mark a shift with its past.

"The previous (party) president, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was very much focused on the old traditional beliefs of the extreme right like the Second World War and the Jewish community," he says.

"And this made it impossible for the conservative right to reach any kind of agreement with the National Front. So when Marine Le Pen came, she decided that the party was going to change and do whatever was necessary to be a partner in a coalition with the mainstream conservative right."

Getting elected, though, takes money and French banks have been unwilling to lend to the National Front.

Instead, according to an investigation by current affairs website Mediapart, the party has reportedly secured €9m (£7m; $11m) in loans from a Russian bank.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, The National Front is supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin

At a time when the French president has suspended the delivery of a high-tech warship to the Russian navy because of Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, the National Front's pro-Putin stance - and the presence of the deputy-head of the Russian parliament at its Congress this weekend - have refocused attention on how different its policies are to France's main political parties.

But part of Ms Le Pen's success is down to the very fact that her party is perceived as different.

French voters are increasingly disillusioned with France's two main parties.

Socialist President Francois Hollande is now the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic, and the opposition UMP is riven by scandal and internal conflict.

The man who hopes to unite the centre-right and beat back the rise of the National Front is former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who won his own party election at the weekend, with a mere 65% of his party's support.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Mr Sarkozy had hoped to get more than 70% of the vote as he pushes to be the UMP's presidential candidate

Polls suggest that he would still win a run-off vote against Marine Le Pen (though the current president would not), but Ms Le Pen says she is ready to play a longer game.

"Nationwide electoral success is like building a house," she told me.

"You don't start with the roof, with the presidential election. You start with the foundations - the local networks, the regional polls."

"You ask if the National Front has changed," she said. "Of course we have: we used to be an opposition party, a party of protest. Now, we're on the threshold of power."

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