The National Times - Le Pen's 'changed' image behind French election rise

Le Pen's 'changed' image behind French election rise

Le Pen's 'changed' image behind French election rise
Le Pen's 'changed' image behind French election rise

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is a different politician from five years ago, her supporters claim; more confident, less error-prone, more in tune with the country. At her third tilt at power, will it be enough?

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At her last rally before the first round of France's election this weekend, thousands turned out on Thursday in southern Perpignan at an event marked by a sense of growing confidence.

"I think we'll win this one," said Guillaume D'Ersu, a 39-year-old unemployed man. "She's had a good campaign. Last time, it was a bit Trump-like. This time it's different."

Le Pen has admitted to mistakes in her doomed bid in 2017 to defeat Emmanuel Macron, who beat her by 66 percent to 34 percent in the run-off vote..

Many wondered if she could bounce back from such a heavy defeat which saw her suffer near-humiliation in a head-to-head debate with Macron that left even ardent supporters wincing.

"We knew after the debate that it wasn't going to work out," said Jeannine Justrobe, a 63-year-old hairdresser at the Perpignan rally. "She's grown more mature since."

The latest polls show Le Pen rising fast ahead of Sunday's first round, and only slightly behind Macron in the event of another run-off between them.

An average of polls puts the arch-nationalist on 47 percent and the pro-EU president on 53 percent.

- 'Fundamentals unchanged' -

Le Pen's campaign has seen her concentrate her efforts on rural and small-town France, as well as addressing one of her biggest political weaknesses: her association with racism.

She has spent a decade on what she calls the "de-toxification" of her party's image, changing its name from the National Front to the National Rally in 2018.

While in the last election she was warning about "Islamist totalitarianism" and Macron's intention to "swamp" France with immigrants, she has been focusing this time on rising prices and the cost of living.

Previous pledges to scrap the euro common currency and leave the European Union are long gone.

"Marine Le Pen has made a decision to normalise, soften and smooth her language," said Cecile Alduy, an expert on the French far-right and political communication at Stanford University in California and Sciences Po in Paris.

"Her programme has hardly changed on the fundamentals of immigration and national identity, but she has chosen to use a different vocabulary to justify it," she told AFP.

The emergence of a more extreme far-right presidential candidate -- newcomer Eric Zemmour -- has also been crucial in making her appear more moderate, Alduy added.

- Pastels and cats -

Le Pen, 53, has even begun wearing more gentle pastel colours, rather than primary ones, some fashionistas claim.

And she's opened up about her personal life.

As well as talking about the difficulties of living in the shadow of her father, far-right patriarch Jean-Marie, she's spoken about the trauma of having her family home bombed in 1976.

The twice divorced mother-of-three has also passed a diploma to become a cat breeder and now lives with her childhood friend, Ingrid.

"I'm happy to be single and don't want to count on men for anything," she told celebrity magazine Closer this month.

Macron supporter and senior MP Richard Ferrand complained privately recently that she's "making people believe she's a 50-year-old housewife who loves cats."

Gilles Finchelstein, the head of the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a left-leaning think-tank in Paris, told AFP that "the change in her image is a reality."

"Marine Le Pen as a personality has become likeable," he said, while warning against the notion that "she has become a candidate like any other."

He pointed to recent polling done for the think-tank suggesting that two out of three (66 percent) of French people identified her as "far-right", down from 80 percent in 2017.

And a total of 51 percent found her worrying, almost unchanged from 2017.

Other polls suggest Macron comfortably outscores Le Pen in perceptions of competency, trust on the economy, and having the stature of a head of state.

- Confidence -

The 44-year-old president has made clear he intends to target his main adversary for her high-spending economic programme and plans such as banning the Muslim headscarf in public spaces.

"It's a racist programme that plans to split society in the most brutal way," he told the Parisien newspaper on Friday.

But in Perpignan at least, supporters believe momentum is with them, particularly given the president's late and so far lacklustre start to campaigning.

"It's the first time that I feel this confident" said Mireille Redon, 74, who said she'd voted for Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie for more than 20 years.