Like father, like daughter? Le Pen plans an election shock

Far-right candidate vows to shake up political scene even if she fails to claim Sarkozy's scalp

Two days from the first round of the French presidential election, the far- right candidate Marine Le Pen is rising rapidly in the polls.

Although she remains far behind the front-runners, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, her progress in the last 10 days has stirred uncomfortable memories of April 2002. Then, almost unheralded by pollsters, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, sprinted over the first round finishing line to snatch second place and knock out the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin.

In speeches and media interviews in the last few days, Ms Le Pen, 43, has predicted another "April surprise" this Sunday when French voters decide which two out of 10 candidates go forward to the second-round run-off on 6 May. After dipping to fourth place early this month behind the hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Ms Le Pen has gained four points in just over a week to reach 17 per cent in two opinion polls in recent days.

If confirmed on Sunday, this would be the highest ever score for the far right National Front in the first round of a presidential election – eclipsing the 16.86 per cent achieved by her father a decade ago. But on this occasion, Ms Le Pen is extremely unlikely to knock out one of the "mainstream" candidates of centre-right or centre-left.

In four recent polls, the Socialist candidate, Mr Hollande, is given 27.5 to 29.5 per cent of the first round vote. President Sarkozy is given 24 to 28 per cent. Mr Hollande holds what seems to be an unassailable poll lead in the second round – of up to 18 points.

But a low turnout on Sunday could yet upset the pollsters' arithmetic. In any case, a high score for Ms Le Pen – around 16 to 18 per cent – might transform the landscape of French politics, whether she reaches the second round or not.

Ms Le Pen's campaign, to her father's reported anger, has sought to present a less xenophobic and more socially aware face of the far right. In recent days, she has even spoken of widening and re-naming her party after the election by absorbing the nationalist, right wing of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party.

In a radio interview yesterday, she said that she would like to see a "recomposition" of French politics. The old left-right divide was "old-fashioned and artificial", she told France Inter radio. Politics in future would split between "those who still believe in France and the nation state and those who don't".

A post-election earthquake of this kind is not impossible. Political commentators predict deep dissensions within Mr Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) if he fails to win a second term. There are also rifts within Ms Le Pen's National Front between the "Mariniste" modernisers and those who detest her attempts to take the party away from its anti-semitic, xenophobic and Vichy-sympathising roots. The "dissidents" include the party's honorary president for life, Marine's father Jean-Marie.

Mr Le Pen, 83, is said to have criticised his daughter's campaign as too "leftist" and too "techno" – in other words too weighted towards social issues rather than immigration and Islam.

In one of his classic provocations, intended to amuse unreconstructed xenophobes, Mr Le Pen this week suggest that Nicolas Sarkozy's initials stood for "National Socialist" and compared the President's open-air meeting in Paris last Sunday to a "Nuremberg rally".

Argument rages within the NF over whether Marine's kinder, gentler approach has been successful or not. She began to haemorrhage voters last month to the hard-right campaign of Mr Sarkozy and to the hard-left campaign of Mr Mélenchon. She has now recovered but only after she reverted to the intolerant language associated with her father.

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