Support grows for far right's Marine Le Pen

Opinion polls have made the National Front the new and, to many observers, unwelcome star of French politics.

Six-Fours-les-Plages, France // On a wet and blustery night, latecomers find standing room only as they reach the hall to hear the woman who is, according to taste, a political heroine for modern France or a dangerous xenophobe.

These are, for the most part, Marine Le Pen's admirers, and the new leader of the far-right, anti-immigration Front National (FN) lives up to their expectations.

In this Mediterranean resort, which serves as a dormitory for commuters to the naval port of Toulon and has a high population of Arabs with roots in the Maghreb, she has her 700-strong audience in her thrall.

Cheers, applause and shouts of approval punctuate her words as she lists a litany of failures by Nicolas Sarkozy's government on immigration, crime, employment and economics. It had been the same story the night before in Perpignan, near the Spanish border, where 900 turned out to see her.

"Marine president", supporters chant. And as they sing La Marseillaise at the end of her speech, it seems that to this audience, Marine is a Marianne - national emblem of France since soon after the revolution of 1789 - for the 21st century.

France goes to the polls today in the first round of cantonal elections, the last formal test of public opinion before the presidential elections of April 2012.

But the opinion polls have made her the new and, to many observers, unwelcome star of French politics; of three recent surveys suggesting she would reach the second round of the contest for the Elysée Palace, two found that she would top the poll in the first, thereby eliminating either Mr Sarkozy, seeking his second mandate, or the socialist candidate.

Ms Le Pen's name is familiar and so, to critics, is her message. She is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN's crusty old president until she replaced him in January.

There are differences. Her father was given to outrageous statements about Arabs, Jews and the French political establishment; he was regularly denounced as a fascist. She treads more carefully.

Whereas Mr Le Pen was prosecuted, among his many court cases, for describing the slaughter of Jews in Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of Second World War history", his daughter calls it the "epitome of barbarity". It is difficult to imagine her ever saying as he did: "I bought a house in the country so my children who live in the 15th arrondissement [a district of Paris] can see cows instead of Arabs."

But it would be foolish to suppose she is adopting an entirely new and welcoming attitude towards France's large ethnic minorities of North African and sub-Saharan origins.

She has likened the practice of closing French city streets to enable Muslims to observe Friday prayers, in areas where there are no adequate mosques, to foreign occupation. At the meeting in Six-Four-les-Plages, the audience seemed exclusively white. And while she insists she is not antisemitic, her own father says: "Politically, barring a few subtleties, she holds the same opinions as me."

Marine Le Pen is 42, the youngest of Mr Le Pen's three daughters. She is a lawyer whose caseload included, in the 1990s, defending illegal immigrants. Two marriages have ended in divorce and she has three children. Her partner is a fellow FN campaigner.

Ms Le Pen smiles a lot, offers warm handshakes to strangers and speaks with eloquence as well as passion. But the left warns that behind the charm is the same old Front National. Mr Sarkozy's centre-right, even more troubled by her rise in popularity, is doing all it can to stop its traditional but disgruntled supporters from flocking to her banner.

"She's articulate, amusing about opponents and seems, compared with her father, a breath of fresh air - but she's also dangerous," said one woman, a rare dissenting voice at the meeting in Six-Fours-les-Plages. "When I hear her talk about stopping French blood being diluted, I cannot help thinking of Hitler and the purity of the Aryan race in the early 1930s."

It is this kind of outlook that Ms Le Pen says she is determined to expose as false. Indeed, it has been a key part of her political life since teenage years when she became president of Generations Le Pen, an association committed to "de-demonising" her father's party.

Before a press conference in a cramped meeting room at the FN's offices in Toulon, a candidate in the forthcoming local elections, Jean-Pierre Ponzevera, says she is completely different to her father. "Politically, it's going to explode in France when the presidential elections come," he said. "It's as if the French people have finally woken up. And they see us for what we are: a proper French, republican party that rejects the old solutions that don't work."

With a hint of forced realism, at least some prominent figures in French politics are beginning to see that voters seduced by the FN will not be won back unless their fears on core issues are recognised.

But at a time of striking advances by the far right in Europe, there is little doubt that Marine Le Pen, leading a party without a single member of parliament, senses a massive breakthrough.

When asked, at the Toulon press conference, about her intentions in the event of being elected president next year, there is none of the classic politician's "wait and see" caution to her response. She deals with the hypothesis as if no outcome could be more natural, and produces a stream of figures "leaked by a patriotic civil servant" to show the government has failed to curb immigration.

An hour later, buoyed by the enthusiasm of her Six-Fours-les-Plages audience, she spells it out: "Nicolas Sarkozy has said he'll finish two mandates and then settle for la dolce vita. Well, the French are going to offer him his dolce vita sooner than he hoped."