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Marine Le Pen: Right-wing wild card in French election

By Peter Wilkinson and Jim Bittermann, CNN
March 14, 2012 -- Updated 0143 GMT (0943 HKT)
  • Marine Le Pen says she has backing of 500 elected officials needed to stand in French election
  • Le Pen is leader of France's far-right National Front party and daughter of fiery politician
  • Her supporters believe her qualities can propel her into at least second place finish in election
  • Le Pen goes into the election with anti-immigration, anti-euro, protectionist policies for France

(CNN) -- Marine Le Pen officially entered the French election race on Tuesday, saying she had secured the backing of 500 elected officials required to stand in the French presidential contest.

Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front party may share some of her famous father's politics, but that is where the similarity ends.

While Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front and led the party from 1972 until last year, was full of bombast and fury, his 43-year-old daughter measures her words - especially on the sensitive issue of immigration -- and knows the value of a smile.

The former lawyer and her supporters believe these qualities can propel her into at least a second place finish in the first round of the French presidential elections on April 22 -- despite opinion polls indicating otherwise.

And while the party's presidential candidate may be more telegenic than her father, Le Pen herself believes the National Front's appeal has widened too because voters are different.

France's extreme right party advances

"I think the structure of our electorate has changed," she said. "The perception that right-wing voters have of me is extremely different today from the perception voters of the right had of Jean-Marie Le Pen."

In fact Le Pen, a twice-divorced mother-of-three, says her voters these days often come from both the political right and left, although this claim is not borne out by public opinion polls.

It is true though that her political program does cut across party lines, especially her arguments against both illegal and legal immigration, and the political integration of Europe and the euro. "Our political leaders have a fascination for the United States and they want absolutely to create a United States of Europe," she said.

"We have seen the result: Europe has never been so weak economically as today. Our leaders' craziness for the euro creates a risk for the entire world."

Le Pen goes into the election with anti-euro, protectionist policies for France, and opposes the privatization of the country's post office, which she says will hit rural areas hard. She has also worked to remove extremist elements from her party.

But her critics -- and there are many -- say Le Pen remains a risk. When she is away from her supporters and out in the public she often gets booed -- and worse. She was doused with water when she visited the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, a French overseas territory whose citizens come from a racially mixed background where many view the extreme right as the real threat.

One protester in Reunion said: "As a country of human rights France cannot accept this kind of person who takes advantage of the economic crisis to spread a message of Islamophobia and xenophobia."

So far, Le Pen has not faced the same accusations of racism that her father faced during his time as National Front leader, and she shrugs off this criticism: "I have lots of experiences with this sort of thing ... they bark but they don't bite."

We have seen the result: Europe has never been so weak economically as today
Marine Le Pen

She has personal experience with political opponents who deploy more than words though. When she was eight years old a bomb intended for her father exploded near her family's apartment, but she, her two sisters and her parents escaped unharmed.

Le Pen overcame a major hurdle by securing the required backing of the 500 elected officials required to be a candidate in the presidential race. Some analysts had speculated she would fail to obtain the necessary signatories because many would be loathe to be associated with the far right.

Now Le Pen, and her political views, may prove a real wild card in the election, perhaps even threatening one of the two top contenders, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party rival Francois Hollande.

This would mirror the most notable achievement of her father, who shocked France in 2002 by coming in second, ahead of socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of voting in the presidential election.

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