Le Pen: far-right heir aiming to take down EU

Clare BYRNE
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Marine Le Pen has worked hard to purge the National Front of the anti-Semitism and overt racism

Marine Le Pen was a daddy's girl growing up, and she wept for joy when her father -- the bogeyman of French politics -- beat his Socialist rival for a spot in the final of the 2002 presidential election.

But while Jean-Marie Le Pen never seemed to truly covet the top job, his charismatic daughter is convinced that, come May 7, France will have its first woman president.

Over the past six years her rebranded "party of patriots" from both left and the right has gone from strength to strength, propelled by the kind of anti-globalisation, anti-establishment fury that drove Britain's vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump's election in the United States.

"Against the moneyed right and the moneyed left I am the candidate of the French people," Le Pen declared in a TV debate with four rivals last month.

Since taking over the leadership of the far-right National Front (FN) in 2011 from her father, the telegenic 48-year-old former lawyer has promoted her efforts to purge the party of the anti-Semitism and overt racism that were its hallmarks.

But her recent remarks about the roundup and deportation of around 13,000 French Jews during World War II may have set back those efforts.

Le Pen was criticised for declaring that France was "not responsible" for the roundup carried out by French police acting on orders from the collaborationist Vichy regime -- despite three former presidents admitting France's guilt.

Le Pen said she was thinking of France's youth. "I want them to be proud of being French," she said.

But her remarks inevitably drew comparisons with the revisionism of her father, whom she booted out of the party for describing the Holocaust as "a detail of history".

Le Pen suspended her father in 2015 from the party he co-founded for downplaying the Nazi gas chambers.

A wounded Jean-Marie refused to go quietly, dragging the FN before the courts.

- Mother posed for Playboy -

The split marked a turning point in the career of Le Pen junior, a politician who developed a tough shell after a tumultuous childhood.

When she was eight, a bomb ripped through the Paris apartment building where the family lived, slightly injuring six people but sparing the Le Pens.

Eight years later Marine's mother Pierrette walked out on her husband and three daughters, sensationally resurfacing shortly afterwards in Playboy magazine for which she posed nude.

"It was a huge shock," Le Pen, who did not see her mother for 15 years after the split, told an M6 television interviewer last year.

Now herself a twice-divorced mother-of-three, she keeps her private life out of the spotlight, appearing rarely as a couple with her partner, FN vice-president Louis Aliot.

Le Pen, who has her father's gravelly voice and flair for sharp putdowns, started out as a lawyer defending illegal immigrants facing deportation as a state-appointed attorney.

Despite that experience she blames migration -- and the European Union, which she has predicted "will die" -- for France's economic woes.

"We are not going to welcome any more people. Stop. We are full up," she insists.

The FN has come a long way since it was launched in 1972 as a refuge for paramilitaries who opposed France granting independence to Algeria. It also drew apologists for the wartime Vichy regime's collaboration with Nazi Germany and ultra-conservative Catholics.

Under Le Pen junior, the party has shown a more progressive face by promoting openly gay politicians to its upper echelons and showing racists and anti-Semites the door.

Critics, however, point to the role of several hard-right Le Pen aides who were once part of violent student groups -- and the recurring chant of "This is our land" at FN rallies -- as evidence that it still attracts hardliners.

- French first -

Like Trump, Le Pen is proposing to pull up the drawbridge and restore French glory with a policy of "economic patriotism" that most economists see as a recipe for ruin.

Her plans to ditch the euro and hold a "Frexit" referendum have caused particular alarm.

Le Pen also wants to pull out of Europe's Schengen border-free area, adopt a French-first policy on jobs and public housing and tax products from French companies that offshore factory jobs by 35 percent.

In the last presidential election in 2012 she finished third on just under 18 percent.

Five years later, with the left in disarray and the conservative candidate Francois Fillon dogged by scandal, polls show her running neck-and-neck with centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in the first round.

But they show her falling at the final hurdle, with voters predicted to rally in the May 7 run-off behind her opponent, just as they plumped for conservative Jacques Chirac when he faced Le Pen senior in 2002.

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