Is there substance to Le Pen’s charm offensive?

Colin Randall attempts to make sense of Marine Le Pen's political theatre

French far-right leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen addresses supporters during an election campaign rally in Nice, southern France. Claude Paris / AP Photo
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Amid all the drama of the French presidential election campaign, Marine Le Pen’s withdrawal from another presidency, as head of her far-right party, was still a moment of pure theatre.

She has not gone altogether. It is a “break”, she explained on prime time television, intended to show her desire to reach “all the French people”.

The sub-text is clear. Behind the inclusive words, Ms Le Pen is distancing herself from the toxic connotations of her brand, the Front National, before the decisive final round of voting on May 7. She entered the final lap well behind the centrist Emmanuel Macron in opinion polls and general expectation. And she knew the Front National remains synonymous in many minds with sinister views on Muslims, Jews, racial harmony and – in the case of some attached to the party – a sense of regret about the outcome of the Second World War.

But there is ample reason to believe Mr Macron’s support is as volatile as hers. He can speak well but lacks Ms Le Pen’s punch. She is gaining ground and no rational observer completely rules out the possibility of a rally of opinion in her favour.

Nor can it any longer be said that Ms Le Pen appeals only to brainless white ruffians. In one area of the Mediterranean coast, I have come across a self-employed plumber, a highly intelligent physiotherapist and even Maghrebin council workers who will or may vote for her.

But someone has clearly advised Ms Le Pen that to beat Mr Macron, she must do still more to consolidate her largely successful attempts to detoxify a movement that has often resembled a fascist mob.

That someone, however, was not her estranged father Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose expulsion from the party he created was orchestrated by her after he repeated a description of Nazi gas chambers as a mere detail of war.

Mr Le Pen, who bizarrely continues as the Front National’s honorary president, supports his daughter but feels she has been altogether too timid, too intent on de-demonising the party.

But is there substance to his daughter’s charm offensive? Has she really changed from when her anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic father, also an apologist for France’s wartime collaborationist government, could say there was little between them. She probably has, though not enough.

Ms Le Pen demands to be treated as a politician like any other, a respectable champion of all French people, not just some. Her protectionist policies may seem like the economics of the madhouse, but they please many in a country beset with unemployment and austerity.

Party members who openly voice racist comments these days face expulsion. Ms Le Pen even insists she has no problem with Islam, though her complaint about its “visibility”–prayers spilling into the streets, the wearing of face-covering headwear – at least borders on insult for France’s large Muslim population. For many, the leopard’s spots are intact.

In one respect, the two candidates are similar. Neither is as strong as previous presidents on foreign affairs.

Ms Le Pen is anti-European Union and soft on Russia and the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Mr Macron is pro-EU but his position on Syria has wavered. He now talks of possible international military intervention if, as the French government asserts, Assad’s regime is found responsible for the chemical weapons attack that killed 89 people in Khan Sheikhoun.

In truth, the choice has been whittled down to two from 11 candidates, none inspiring great confidence and some causing varying degrees of worry or uncertainty.

The words each utters in the final week of campaigning will determine whether France faces an uncertain time, or a potentially frightening one.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National