The French far-right leader Marine Le Pen is hoping for a political breakthrough in a parliamentary by-election in south-west France today. In a region which has been resistant to the far right, Ms Le Pen believes that her party's so-called "Barbie and Ken" strategy can score a victory over the mainstream parties of both centre right and centre left.
A win for boyish, handsome "Ken lookalike" Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne, 23, would give the National Front (NF) a third National Assembly seat and ring alarm bells about possible victories in next year's European elections for Ms Le Pen's "sanitised" but still xenophobic party.
The political background could hardly be more favourable to the NF. The by-election in Villeneuve-sur-Lot has been forced by the resignation of a local former golden boy, Jérôme Cahuzac, the millionaire Socialist ex-budget minister who admitted this year that he had kept illegal, tax-evading bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore for 20 years.
The Socialist President François Hollande, though recovering slightly in the polls, remains desperately unpopular. The French economy is becalmed. The main centre-right opposition party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), is hamstrung by leadership quarrels.
In the first round of the by-election last Sunday, the local Socialist was eliminated in a strongly left-wing constituency in a historically left-wing region. The second round today is therefore a two-horse race which will occupy, in theory, only the right-hand side of the track. The first-round poll was topped narrowly (28.7 per cent) by Jean-Louis Costes, the 49-year-old UMP candidate. Mr Costes, nominally centre right but hard right in his views, is mayor of a small town in the constituency.
Second place was taken (26.04 per cent) by Mr Bousquet-Cassagne, leader of the NF regional youth league, a business student, given to wearing dashing black suits and open-necked white shirts. He is the "Ken" of Marine Le Pen's strategy. "Barbie" is one of the NF's two members of parliament: Ms Le Pen's blonde and glamorous 23-year-old niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
After years of putting forward bigoted, unattractive fiftysomething unknowns, Socialist party officials say that the NF is now selecting vacuous, young, handsome candidates to hoover up the disaffected youth vote of both right and left.
The homeless and angry left-wing vote, infuriated by Mr Cahuzac's "treason", holds the key to today's result. The national and local leadership of the Socialist party has called on its supporters to vote for the UMP in a "Republican Front" to resist the far right. A similar appeal in the presidential election in 2002 saw the centre-right President Jacques Chirac re-elected by 82 per cent against Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. That will not happen today.
All sides expect a "plague on both your houses" transfer of left-wing votes to the NF. Other more moderate Socialist voters cannot stomach the idea of voting for the UMP. An NF victory, they say, would give a useful jolt to President Hollande and the Socialist hierarchy in faraway Paris. They are threatening to stay away in droves.
Since succeeding her father two years ago, Ms Le Pen, 44, has mostly avoided outright racist themes. She faces likely prosecution, all the same, for "fomenting religious hatred". In 2010, she compared Muslim prayer meetings on the streets of French cities to the Nazi occupation of France. The European Parliament lifted her immunity from prosecution as a Euro MP last week. Marine remains detested by a large section of the far right. Victory in a constituency such as Villeneuve-sur-Lot would allow Ms Le Pen to point to the success of her policies of rejuvenating and "de-demonising" the NF.Reuse content