Marine Le Pen, changing face of France's far-right

PARIS Tue Apr 17, 2012 11:53am BST

Marine Le Pen, France's National Front party head and far right candidate for 2012 French presidential election, attends a campaign rally in Henin-Beaumont, April 15, 2012. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Marine Le Pen, France's National Front party head and far right candidate for 2012 French presidential election, attends a campaign rally in Henin-Beaumont, April 15, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

PARIS (Reuters) - France's far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has had a tricky job since replacing her paratrooper father: convincing voters she isn't daddy's girl and ridding the National Front of a "nasty party" image to become a viable alternative.

Most opinion polls suggest she has achieved both aims. In third place ahead of the April 22 first round, the 43-year old former lawyer describes herself as the "popular revolt" candidate to the left of U.S. President Barack Obama.

But while a place in the May 6 runoff seemed within reach three months ago, the anti-immigration campaigner is now far from that goal and faces a fight for third place with hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who embodies a very different kind of "citizens' revolution".

A tall striking blonde, who wears sharp suits and high-heels, Le Pen oozes self-confidence and feels comfortable in her own political skin.

The trademark gravelly voice hints at her smoker's past. At rallies she oscillates between exulting her passion for the French nation and excoriating the failure of its ruling elite.

Her cordial and jovial television manner strikes a chord especially among the politically apathetic.

Le Pen's softer image has been combined with a strict code of conduct in the party, expelling extremists and cracking down on expressions of racism and anti-Semitism. She was quick to disown her father Jean-Marie Le Pen's comments that Nazi gas chambers were just a detail in history.

She initially campaigned on an anti-euro, protectionist economic programme aimed at the young and disillusioned workers. But amid signs she was losing momentum, she reverted to the more traditional National Front security and immigration agenda after a shooting spree by a home-grown Islamist militant last month.

"She's a political animal, has a good rapport with people and doesn't come across as contrived," says Laurent Brice, who runs one of her campaign offices in northern France.

POLITICAL BUG

An avid reader of thriller writer Stephen King, Le Pen's steel and flair for political debate has echoes of her father.

Twice divorced with three children - one named after French national icon Joan of Arc - Le Pen makes sure she is never seen in public with her current companion, Louis Aliot, the party's vice-president. Her mantra is private life should not be mixed with professional life.

The divorce of her parents in 1987 marked her and brought her close to her father. Her mother left home and later posed partially naked for Playboy, something Le Pen said shocked her.

A keen horse-rider and occasional gun enthusiast, Le Pen grew up in Paris' wealthy western Paris suburbs, graduating in law from one of the capital's top universities. She practised six years and like many young lawyers represented poor clients, including illegal immigrants, without charge.

Had she not been bitten by the political bug, Le Pen says she would have liked to have become a photographer.

She joined her father's party at 18 in 1986 and abandoned her law career in 1998 to provide legal advice to the party. She was first elected to political office in 1998 as a regional councillor in northern France and later had the same role in the Paris region before returning to the northern rust belt in 2010 where she opted to establish her headquarters. She has also been a member of the European Parliament since 2004.

Le Pen ran for parliament in the former coal mining town of Henin-Beaumont in 2007, but lost to a Socialist in the second round despite polling 42 percent. She is expected to run again for the same seat in June.

"She wants power. That's the difference with her father," said Henin-Beaumont's mayor Eugene Binaisse, who leads a left-leaning coalition.

(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Paul Taylor)