Claude Paris/AP
French far-right leader and National Front Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen (c.) waves to supporters, during a campaign meeting, in Marseille, southern France, March 4.

France's far-right presidential hopeful Le Pen clears crucial election hurdle

Ms. Le Pen – who has attacked the rise of Islam in France – garnered the required signatures to get on the April 2012 presidential ballot.

The far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen today qualified to be on the ballot, just ahead of a deadline that would have shut her out.  

Ms. Le Pen, who has castigated immigration and the growing presence of Islam in France and wants France to leave the eurozone, has been a volatile and popular candidate here, whose attack-style is admired by many French. 

As of yesterday she was 15 signatures shy of the 500 necessary to stand for French high office in the first round of elections on April 22. Today, Le Pen said she had reached 500.

Although Le Pen has steadily polled in third place, between 15 and 19 percent, she struggled to obtain the necessary number of signatures because they must come from local elected officials. 

The French far right has always exerted more influence than its results at the ballot box suggest. Polls aired in Paris last month had nearly 30 percent of French considering Le Pen as a candidate or at least agreeing with her views. Mainstream politics in France, as in the rest of Europe, have shifted to the right for at least a half-decade.

Le Pen's National Front party is perceived as siphoning off votes from center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is fighting hard to be re-elected. 

But today, polls for the first time showed Mr. Sarkozy outscoring Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the first round of elections, although he remains 9 points behind Hollande in an expected runoff on May 5. Under French election rules, a candidate that does not reach 50 percent in the initial election faces a second round run off.

Sarkozy forces may have hoped privately that Le Pen would not reach the 500 mark, but many consider the failure of a candidate running third in the polls to reach the ballot box an embarrassment to French democracy.

Under French election rules, the 500 signatures must come from some 41,000 local mayors and town officials. Le Pen struggled to gain their support because officials do not wish to be associated with her lightening rod name and extreme views since the signatures are made public.

Blonde and telegenic, Le Pen is the daughter of Europe’s most famous nationalist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose popular, blunt, and folksy style were matched by what was often seen as a racist and sometimes anti-Semetic French nationalism.

Le Pen fille has taken a different strategy. 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.

Le Pen pere regularly struggled to reach 500 signatures, even though in 2002 he won a place in the second round of French elections, astounding the international community and the Parisian intelligentsia. He lost to former President Jacques Chirac in the final runoff.

With dozens of candidates on a broad left-right spectrum – from Trotskyites on the left to a hunting and fishing party on the traditional right – an outright first round win has never happened in French politics. In 1965, not even Charles de Gaulle, father of modern France, made 50 percent in the first round. 

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