Fight for the right: Sarkozy's bid to win Le Pen's people

France's far-right candidate has a new challenger: the President. John Lichfield joins her on the campaign trail in Strasbourg

Marine Le Pen yesterday tore up her presidential campaign – or at least her standard stump speech. From now on, she told a cheering audience supporters in Strasbourg, it would be "back to basics": immigration, immigration, insecurity, love of country and immigration.

The far right leader, running a strong third in the polls for this spring's French presidential, has been campaigning on a bouillabaisse of ultra-nationalist, social and leftist issues. From this week, she will face a challenge from a "new" candidate who plans to out-shout her on the unashamed themes and "values of the Right": "national identity", "order" "discipline", "family" and immigration. His name is Nicolas Sarkozy.

The president will finally enter the race this week, possibly as soon as today. He has decided that he cannot win on his achievements and certainly not on his low levels of personal popularity.

Mr Sarkozy will confront the Socialist front-runner, François Hollande, on social, economic and European policy. But his strategists have concluded that few voters understand the arcane, scary talk on deficits and debt and multibillion-euro shifts in taxes and spending.

They plan to steer the campaign onto hot-button, emotional issues where Mr Hollande can be painted (American-style) as "elitist", "arrogant", "dangerous" or "out of touch". Mr Sarkozy will propose referenda (stealing Ms Le Pen's idea) on tougher rules for immigrants and the unemployed.

He will crusade on "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian" values and identity and oppose Mr Hollande's ideas for gay marriage and local votes for foreigners.

This right-wing strategy, outlined in an interview in Le Figaro on Saturday, has angered some Sarkozy supporters, and potential ones, in the centre or centre-right.

They criticised the president's approach yesterday as "dangerous" and "self-defeating" 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 the opinion polls, a few points ahead of Ms Le Pen, is still not certain of even reaching the second round. His primary focus appears to be the first round on 22 April – and Ms Le Pen.

The President plans to appeal in the next nine weeks mostly to the socially conservative blue-collar electorate and the older, catholic, traditionalist middle classes which supported him strongly in 2007. Both have been infuriated by the President's zig-zag policies and his vain and self-regarding presidential style – or lack of style.

Elements of both electorates are tempted by the disinfected brand of far right politics offered by Marine Le Pen, 43. At her rally in yesterday, she displayed many of the changes of style and tone introduced since she succeeded her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, 83, as president of the National Front last year.

Jean-Marie used to crank up mass emotion like an American TV preacher; Marine is subtler, like a chat-show host. Jean-Marie adored dramatic light shows and martial music.

Marine goes for gentler tunes and softer lights. She generates fervour rather than hysteria. Her audience is younger than her father's and more feminine. Skin-heads are scarce, though not completely eliminated.

But Ms Le Pen made it clear yesterday that she knew that she had to revert to the NF "golden oldie" themes of migration and national identity to fight off the President and preserve, or expand, her predicted 18 to 20 per cent of the first round vote.

She accused Mr Sarkozy of talking a big game on immigration and security for ten years, as interior minister and President, but doing nothing in office. "Now he wants to pull the same trick,"she said. "He's not a recidivist. He's a multirecidivist."

Ms Le Pen predicted that the press would accuse her of falling back, in her Strasbourg speech, on "fundamentalist" NF themes. In previous campaign appearances she has stressed "social" issues such as unemployment, low wages and her plans to pull France out of the Euro and maybe the EU.

She did not abandon those themes yesterday. "The Greeks are living through your future," she said to loud cheers. But 90 per cent of her speech was devoted to immigration, just like in the good-old-bad-old days of papa. Since she became president in 2010, 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 that she needs 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.

Even her father has been "purged". Although he is the NF president-for-life, Jean-Marine Le Pen has scarcely featured in the campaign. Marine has, in a sense, "UKIPised" the National Front, making it more mainstream, more intellectually disciplined and morally respectable. Many of her policy positions – anti-EU; tough on crime; taking legal brakes off the police; crackdowns on immigration and welfare cheats – could be approved by the right wing of the Conservative Party.

However, Marine Le Pen has also shifted away from two NF founding tribes, 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; defence of France's secular, Republican traditions; increased power for the central state – could come from the song-sheet of the Left or even 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 Nicolas Sarkozy and his team.

By failing to play tunes on the old Lepennist keys of family, religion, race and populist anti-statism she has, they believe, dangerously exposed her right flank. On some themes, Mr Sarkozy hopes to run to the right of the National Front.

Nicolas Sarkozy

President Sarkozy is eyeing a US-style campaign, rooted in "values" such as "work" and "responsibility", according to an interview at the weekend. In it he says...

* He promises rules to force the unemployed to accept jobs or re-training. A referendum would be called – borrowing a National Front idea – if the changes were blocked.

* He would block any legal move towards euthanasia.

* He would oppose marriage or marriage-like contracts for homosexuals (something that he supported in 2007).

* He promised a constitutional change to make it easier to expel illegal immigrants and failed asylum-seekers. He called for stricter surveillance of legally resident foreigners and opposed votes for foreigners in local elections.

Marine le Pen

As President Sarkozy readies to launch his campaign, and Marine Le Pen attempts to reinvigorate her base, she remains a more moderate-sounding leader than her father, Jean-Marine.

* Since taking over the reins of the party two years ago, Ms Le Pen has toned down the party's language. Coded appeals to racism, for example, have been consigned to history.

* She has moved away from two key National Front constituencies: the anti-government, small shop-keeping middle classes and the Vichy nostalgics.

* Parts of her policy portfolio remain leftish, including plans for annual minimum wage rises tied to inflation and increased power for the central. She is also a defender of France's secular and Republican heritage.

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