Marine Le Pen yesterday tore up her presidential campaign – or at least her standard stump speech. From now on, she told a cheering audience in Strasbourg, it would be "back to basics": immigration, immigration, insecurity, love of country and immigration.
The far right leader, a strong third in polls for this spring's presidential election, has campaigned on a mixture of ultra-nationalist, social and leftist issues. But she now faces a "new" candidate who plans to out-shout her on national identity, order, discipline, family" and immigration: Nicolas Sarkozy. The president will enter the race this week and will confront Socialist front-runner, François Hollande, on social, economic and European policy.
But Mr Sarkozy's strategists plan to steer the campaign to emotional issues where Mr Hollande can be painted as "elitist". Mr Sarkozy will propose referenda (Ms Le Pen's idea) on tougher immigrant and jobless rules. He will crusade on "Christian" values and oppose Mr Hollande's ideas for gay marriage and local votes for foreigners.
This right-wing strategy has angered some Sarkozy supporters in the centre or centre-right. They criticised his approach as "dangerous" and a "surrender" of the centre ground needed to win the two-candidate, second-round, run-off on 6 May. But the president, running second in opinion polls, a few points ahead of Ms Le Pen, is not certain of even reaching the second round. His focus appears to be the first round on 22 April – and Ms Le Pen.
He plans to appeal in the next nine weeks mostly to the socially conservative blue-collar electorate and the older, traditionalist middle classes which supported him in 2007.
Elements of both electorates are tempted by the far right politics offered by Marine Le Pen, 43. At her rally yesterday, she displayed many of the changes of style introduced since she succeeded her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, last year. Jean-Marie used to crank up mass emotion like a TV preacher; Marine is subtler, like a chat-show host. She generates fervour rather than hysteria. Her audience is younger and more feminine. But she made it clear yesterday she knew she must revert to old NF themes of migration and national identity to combat Sarkozy and preserve, or expand, her predicted 18 to 20 per cent of the first round vote.
Ms Le Pen has moderated the language of the NF; she has cut out the coded appeals to racism and anti-semitism; she has purged the party so energetically that her nickname amongst diehards is "le pit-bull blonde".
The purges partly explain her failure – so far – to gather the 500 signatures of elected officials needed to reach the second round ballot paper. The NF has lost many of the wily activists who knew how to drum up sponsorship from village and small town mayors.
Ms Le Pen has also shifted away from NF founding tribes such as the anti-government, small shop-keeping middle classes, and the Vichy nostalgics and royalist anti-Republicans.
Many of her social and economic policies – annual minimum wage rises tied to inflation; a defence of secular, Republican traditions; increased power for the central state – could come from the song-sheet of the Left or even from the hard Left.
The strategy has worked, up to a point. Her new support is largely from the white working class. Her party is now the most popular in France among blue-collar workers.
But the "marinist" swing to the "left" has been observed with great care by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his team. On some themes, Mr Sarkozy hopes to run to the right of the National Front.
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