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Marine Le Pen: far-right firebrand who shook up France

© AFP/File / by Gina DOGGETT, Clare BYRNE | French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen sought to normalise the image of her National Front, a party long tainted by anti-Semitism and racism

PARIS (AFP) - 

Marine Le Pen suffered a crushing defeat in France's presidential election, estimates showed Sunday, but she can console herself with having transformed her far-right National Front (FN) from a pariah party into a force to be reckoned with.

The 48-year-old anti-EU and anti-immigration "candidate of the people" won between 33.9 percent and 34.5 percent, projections showed, nearly double the 17.8 percent scored by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was runner-up in the 2002 election.

The result testified to the success of the younger Le Pen's drive to normalise the image of a party long tainted by anti-Semitism and racism.

But centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron's decisive win showed continuing strong resistance to FN policies, with Le Pen's proposal to dump the euro and exit the EU acting as a red flag among voters alarmed by Britain's vote to leave the bloc and Donald Trump's election in the United States.

- 'David versus Goliath' -

Le Pen had painted her 39-year-old rival as the "darling of the system" and played up her underdog status in what she called a "David versus Goliath" fight.

It was a message that played well among voters in rural and post-industrial areas feeling disenfranchised by immigration, globalisation and EU integration.

At the outset of the campaign she had avoided controversy but when the race tightened she returned to the party's stock themes, accusing immigrants of turning France into "a giant squat".

In the second round of the campaign she was first out of the blocks, bashing Macron as an "unfeeling banker" to try secure support from leftists.

Tapping into fury with the failures of mainstream parties to address France's deep economic malaise, she presented the election as a chance to save "the French nation and civilisation".

But her proposals to leave the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership rang alarm bells in France and beyond, with analysts fearing it could bring down the curtain on the union after Brexit.

A trained lawyer who ironically started out defending illegal immigrants facing deportation, Le Pen brought her sharp tongue to a blistering final debate between the two rivals on Wednesday but floundered when pressed by Macron on her economic proposals.

- 'Party of patriots' -

Le Pen had taken steady steps to rehabilitate the FN as a "party of patriots" after taking the helm in 2011.

That meant breaking with her father, whom she kicked out of the party in 2015, a fate that would meet dozens of other FN members caught making anti-Semitic statements.

Revamping the FN's xenophobic ethos into a message of bringing immigration under control served as a dog whistle to far-right partisans while broadening the party's overall appeal.

But the anti-Semitism and revisionism that once defined the FN were never far from the surface.

Le Pen herself said last month that the French are not responsible for an infamous roundup of 13,000 Jews in Paris during World War II by police acting on orders from the Vichy regime.

The candidate is also being probed after tweeting pictures of Islamic State atrocities.

- Funding scandals -

During the campaign she studiously avoided using her tainted family name, and swapped the FN's trademark flame logo for a blue rose, using the slogan "Choose France".

But she never strayed far from the FN's stock themes of immigration and Islamic fundamentalism -- hot-button issues after a string of jihadist attacks in France that have killed more than 230 people since 2015.

"With me there would never have been the migrant terrorists of the Bataclan," she told supporters, referring to the Paris concert hall where dozens were killed in the November 2015 attacks.

Reaching this year's presidential run-off bettered her third-place showing in the first round of the last presidential vote in 2012, when she scored just under 18 percent.

Le Pen, a member of the European Parliament since 2004, led the FN to victory in the 2014 EU elections with 25 percent of the vote.

Several investigations hang over the FN and Le Pen's entourage in funding scandals involving the European Parliament.

For now, the FN is not expected to make Le Pen pay for Sunday's loss, despite vocal criticism from within the party.

On whether the FN will keep it in the family, Le Pen's niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen says she has "absolutely no desire" to stand in the next presidential election in 2022.

- Rocky early life -

Le Pen 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, her mother Pierrette walked out on her husband and three daughters, sensationally resurfacing shortly afterwards posing nude in Playboy magazine.

"It was a huge shock," Le Pen, who did not see her mother for 15 years, said 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.

by Gina DOGGETT, Clare BYRNE

© 2017 AFP