Marine Le Pen's opposition to the euro and to the spread of Islam in… (Stephane Mahe / Reuters )
Reporting from Paris — Marine Le Pen was elected Sunday to lead France's far-right National Front party, succeeding her father and promising to "de-demonize" the group's image.
The 42-year-old National Front deputy leader won a comfortable 67% of votes, becoming a modern and more palatable face of a party known for its anti-immigrant platform, embodied until now by the founder, 82-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen.
By distancing herself from her father's notorious xenophobia and slurs against Jews and the Holocaust, the younger Le Pen has managed to present a softer alternative while still tapping into deepening fears of Islam here. She recently compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France, and is being sued for libel over the comment.
The results have helped put her in a solid third place behind President Nicolas Sarkozy and one of two potential Socialist leaders for the next presidential election in 2012, earning support from as many as 18% of respondents in recent polls and threatening to draw more voters away from Sarkozy's party.
Alternately appearing at ease and as stiff-shouldered as a general during her acceptance speech Sunday, Le Pen called in a husky voice for a stronger nation and the right "not to eat halal against one's will," a reference to meat that is slaughtered according to Muslim ritual. She argued for keeping France strictly secular, a topic popular across the political spectrum here.
Le Pen's opposition to the euro and to the spread of Islam in France has won her growing support from members of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party, or UMP, disappointed with the president, whose popularity slump could cost him reelection.
The National Front typically wins 10% to 15% of votes during local and national elections, despite having a harder time getting members elected into office. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the country when he reached the presidential run-off against Jacques Chirac.
The National Front's higher numbers in recent opinion polls have been attributed in part to Sarkozy's attempt to legislate on issues typically found on far-right agendas.
By cracking down on crime committed by immigrants and Roma migrants, as well as successfully pushing for the passage of a law forbidding women to wear full-body Muslim veils, or burkas, Sarkozy has been accused of legitimizing the National Front's platform in a botched attempt to win conservatives' votes.
Sarkozy "did us an immense service," said Marine Le Pen in a recent interview with the French periodical Causeur. "He came onto our territory. So he de-demonized us."
But political analyst Jerome Fourquet at the French Ifop polling service says it's hard to say whether Sarkozy opened a Pandora's box of anti-Muslim and immigrant fears or whether such emotions were already simmering, as in several other European countries where far-right groups have been gaining ground.
"It's true that across the conservative right we see opinions that are pretty close to those of the National Front," said Fourquet. "But it's hard to know whether the chicken came before the egg. The UMP addressed these questions because they knew there was also strong demand for them across the board."
It is clear, however, that Sarkozy's party "is worried" about the rise of the National Front, Fourquet said. "With Marine Le Pen, the new National Front could seduce the right and be a detriment" to the UMP.
Le Pen has greater ambitions than her father to spoil the UMP party's electoral goals and is known for her more efficient campaign strategy, focusing on harnessing local support, as she did in northern France. Though her father largely contented himself as a sideline political menace, Le Pen has made it clear her "strategy is to conquer power," Fourquet said.
Lauter is a special correspondent.