French anti-immigration party elects Le Pen’s daughter

Marine Le Pen, the daughter of firebrand politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, on Sunday became the second-ever president of Front National (FN) as the party attempts to electrify its populist message ahead of next year's presidential election.

Le Pen, 42, captured 68 per cent of the vote in an election at a party convention in the city of Tours, handily beating her rival for the post, Bruno Gollnisch.

She is now qualified to represent her party in the 2012 presidential race. Analysts are predicting that the political fortunes of Front National may turn around now that the fiery father has stepped aside for the more diplomatic daughter.

A twice-divorced single mother of three, Marine Le Pen is predicted to take some of the edge off a party that some call extremist, while still adhering to the party’s central anti-immigration and anti-globalization platform.

Le Pen assured party members that she would work to empower the state to combat the excesses of the free market and globalization.

The state "must take up economic and social patriotism without compunction," she told the FN congress after winning the party vote.

"At a time when the crisis and globalization are raging, when everything is collapsing, there is still the state."

"I call the people of France to join us with all its strength, with all its energy and with all its heart,” she told the cheering crowd. “To all the French people, and to you my friends, I'm telling you, the most beautiful days are the ones we are going to live. Long live the Front National, long live the republic, long live France."

Unlike her provocative father, who has been accused on several occasions of inciting racial hatred – he regularly warns that France might be overrun by Muslims, and questions the veracity of the Holocaust – Marine Le Pen appeals to French voters who want social protection without the incendiary speech.

Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate who lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential elections, told French media yesterday that Marine Le Pen had "eliminated all her father's caricatures. She is a more credible candidate, more dangerous than her father in her force of conviction."

 Royal warned the public not to be fooled, however, because she had "the same project, the same politics" as her father.

For many, however, that is exactly what they want.

In a recent poll, Le Monde, the French daily, reported that almost one quarter of the French electorate sympathizes with her views. Meanwhile, one third agrees with her position on immigration and the need for assimilating the nation’s millions of new arrivals – many from Muslim countries – into the fabric of French society.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to tone down the debate on immigration by banning religious symbols in public venues. Many critics of the plan, however, said that the effort amounted to little more than a publicity stunt that failed to get to the heart of the immigration problem.

Ironically, Sarkozy won the presidency by promising to crack down on crime and restore law and order, especially in the country’s poorer regions that are home to many jobless immigrants. Yet in October, he found himself instead battling against French workers and unionists when he attempted to increase the retirement age to 65.

Marine Le Pen has promised to employ protectionist measures on behalf of French employed and unemployed alike, and with the global crisis still in the rearview mirror she stands to make impressive gains.

Stepping into her father’s shoes

Jean-Marie Le Pen, 82, the straight-talking politician who founded Front National in 1972, bade farewell Saturday with an impassioned plea to his followers before passing the political torch to his daughter.

Le Pen, a former paratrooper, ran unsuccessfully for president five times. His luck changed in 2002 when he captured 16.86 per cent of the ballots in the first round of voting.

This stunning showing signaled the first time that a “radical politician” had qualified for the second round of the French presidential elections. Although the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac, managed to win in the runoff election that followed, Le Pen and the Front National were suddenly forces to be reckoned with in France’s tumultuous political arena.

Despite retirement, the founder of France’s most controversial party showed that old age has not softened his stance. In response to a complaint by a French-Jewish journalist who said he was dragged away from Saturday’s gala event and beaten, the octogenarian patriarch of Front National played down claims of “anti-Semitism,” saying the journalist’s national origins "could neither be seen on his (press) card, nor on his nose."

While it is such trash talk that has earned Jean-Marie Le Pen the respect, as well as the notoriety, of the French public, many believe that his daughter will be able to bridge the divide that now separates Front National from many potential supporters.

Le Pen senior hit his political peak by defeating the Socialist prime minister and others to reach the 2002 presidential election runoff. The Front National leader lost to Chirac, as mainstream parties of left and right united to defeat Le Pen.

Now, Front National is pinning its hope on a kinder, gentler message, forwarded by a strong and persuasive woman who might be better positioned to sell France a controversial political product.

Robert Bridge, RT