When France's presidential election proceedings began last year, the universal favorite was François Fillon, the nominee of the center-right Republican Party. Marine Le Pen, head of France's right-wing populist and nationalist National Front party, was still considered a somewhat distant prospect.
But now, Ms. Le Pen has pulled ahead in one major poll, riding the wave of anti-establishment politics that have swept Europe over the past year. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Le Pen currently leads the race with between 25 and 26 percent support, compared to 23 to 25 percent for her closest competitor, Mr. Fillon. In mid-December, Fillon held a three-point lead over Le Pen at 28 percent to her 25. The new poll numbers represent a shift that is causing real concern among Fillon's center-right supporters.
For decades, the French National Front party – the party Le Pen's father Jean-Marie founded – was considered a fringe group with little influence outside a small group of core supporters. How did a once-taboo political party become a legitimate contender for power in France?
"The context has changed," Robert Rohrschneider, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Immigration and opposition to integration have risen to historically high levels. Additionally, Brexit provided a boost for nationalist movements in Europe, as did the election of president-elect [at the time of this writing] Trump."
If Le Pen were to become president of France, the impact of her victory would likely be felt far beyond France itself. She is running on a strongly anti-euro platform that could lead France to abandon the currency and return to the franc, a move that could significantly damage the shared economy of the Eurozone and significantly weaken the European Union as a world power. But in France, along with the rest of Europe, economic woes and dissatisfaction with the status quo have caused many to turn away from traditional parties and appear willing to gamble that life may be better under a different and radical kind of leadership — the kind that Le Pen and the National Front say they can deliver.
Le Pen has proven to be a major figure for France's new radical right. Deliberately distancing herself from the Holocaust-trivializing and anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father, Le Pen has spent the last several years rebranding the organization as a legitimate political party. Seeking to present a more palatable version of the National Front, she has "de-demonized" the party by emphasizing more progressive views on certain topics while still holding fast to nationalist anti-immigration policies and a strong sense of euroskepticism. Le Pen has banned skinheads from rallies and, in 2011, publicly condemned the Holocaust, a move which has helped her fringe appear more respectable and appealing, especially among working-class French citizens dissatisfied with current leadership.
As the Monitor's Robert Marquand reported during Le Pen's unsuccessful presidential run in 2012:
Le Pen fille has taken a different strategy [from her father]. She presents herself as a softer nationalist: friendly to Jews and homosexuals, savvy and more ardently patriotic – more a Joan of Arc than an Orthodox hardliner.
However, she has also compared Muslims praying on Paris streets to a Nazi occupation, ardently opposed the European Union (“Brussels is destroying Greece. It will next ravage Italy and Spain, and eventually ... us,” she said about the euro crisis this month), and heaped scorn on Sarkozy, sharing her father’s skill with the satirical political barb.
But Le Pen still has a great deal of work to do before the election if she hopes to win the presidency. According to French law, the two leading candidates after the initial round of voting will face off against each other in May. But while the recent poll indicates that she has the support to face Fillon in that contest, the poll does not give any indication as to whether she can actually beat him under those conditions.
"I'm not worried about Madame Le Pen being president," Pierre Moscovici, European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, a Socialist, told Bloomberg Television in an interview, expressing doubts about the breadth of Le Pen's appeal.
However, he added, "I don't want Madame Le Pen in power. Never, ever in my country."
According to Le Pen, the first order of business, should she be elected, would be a move to eliminate the euro, followed by a push to leave the European Union itself.
"The euro has not been used as a currency, but as a weapon – a knife stuck in the ribs of a country to force it to go where the people don't want to go," Ms. Le Pen said earlier this month. "Do you think we accept living under this threat, this tutelage? It's absolutely out of the question."
France is an important economic power within the Eurozone and the EU, and a "Frexit" from either could have dramatic consequences across Europe. The EU, which formed as an economic bond between countries to prevent European conflicts after World War II, could lose its relevance if one of its most significant members left the agreement. A Frexit could also encourage other countries skeptical of the effectiveness of the EU to leave as well, fundamentally changing the political structure that has held Europe together for decades.
Still, the baggage associated with the Le Pen name will make it harder for Le Pen to achieve her vision of an idealized France. To alleviate this problem, Le Pen has kept her last name off of promotional materials in an attempt to maximize her chances at the polls, a strategy which some critics see as misleading.
"Personally, I'm not convinced that it works," Jérôme Fourquet, a director of opinion pollster Ifop, told The Guardian. "It's like Coca-Cola deciding its trademark will no longer be red, but green. It's a complicated thing, changing the way the public see these things – and I don't think people will be fooled."