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With eye on far right leadership, Marine Le Pen stirs the pot

Marine Le Pen has been described as a more modern face for her father’s far-right National Front party. But her remarks comparing French Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation have some asking how much has actually changed.

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With her blonde hair and wide smile, Marine Le Pen, the daughter of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been portrayed as a cover girl for a more modern National Front party.

Though she unapologetically endorses the party’s anti-immigration, anti-EU, “French first” platform, she has also called for an inclusive National Front, distancing herself from her father’s more controversial statements. When Jean-Marie Le Pen said that gas chambers were a “detail” of World War II history, his daughter insisted she did not share his opinion and urged the National Front to focus on France’s future instead of its sometimes bitter past.

But Marine Le Pen’s efforts to soften her party’s image only go so far, it now seems.

Last Friday, the 42-year-old politician compared Muslims who pray in the street outside overcrowded mosques in France to the Nazi occupation. One month before the daughter could succeed her father in elections for the party leadership, the remark has raised questions about how far the apple truly falls from the tree.

Like father, like daughter?

Le Pen made the comments at a National Front rally in Lyon. "For those who want to talk a lot about World War II, if it's about occupation, then we could also talk about [Muslim prayers in the streets], because that is occupation of territory," she said.

"There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers." she added, “but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents."

For once, French leaders on both the right and the left were unanimous in their condemnation. Government spokesman François Baroin told French television channel France 2: “To anyone wondering if the daughter is a bit more presentable than the father: they’re interchangeable." The opinion was echoed by Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon, who said that "Marine Le Pen is just as dangerous as Jean-Marie Le Pen".

Religious groups in France also expressed outrage at the comments. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) called the comparison an "incitement to hatred and violence against [Muslims]," while the spokesman for the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) expressed his “solidarity” with the country’s Muslims.

‘The National Front is what it is’

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has faced several convictions for racism and anti-Semitism under France’s anti-hate speech laws, rattled the country by unexpectedly placing second in the 2002 French presidential election. Since then, he has been more of a media sensation than a real electoral threat, inflaming political debates and landing himself in unflattering newspaper headlines with positions his adversaries characterise as dangerously nationalistic and often overtly racist.

Daughter Marine has sought to be less abrasive, more disciplined, and less divisive. Trained as a lawyer, the twice-divorced mother-of-three has been an elected member of the European Parliament since 2004 and has acted as National Front vice president since 2003. She has made frequent TV appearances emphasising economic and social programmes rather than ideology and French history. This apparent change of tack has been cast as a bid to reconcile her party with the majority of French voters who view it with deep mistrust.

But according to Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in the French far right, the differences between father and daughter are more in style and background than fundamentals. “They belong to different generations, so the forces that shaped their ways of thinking are not the same," Camus told France24.com. “But the content, the party line, is the same. The National Front is what it is."

In other words, whether the party is headed by an irascible old man or his more congenial - and photogenic - daughter, its essential policy ideas remain the same, including hostility toward immigration and concerns over national identity.

Strategic pot-stirring

Camus does not think Le Pen needs to further distance herself from her father or other older, harder-line party members, many of whom are conservative Catholics, fierce nationalists, or nostalgic for France’s colonial past. “Elections are not won or lost on the basis of controversial statements on French history," Camus explained. “She can very well run a campaign without addressing those subjects whatsoever."

The influence of Islam on France, however, is a topical issue and one that is not only raised by the far right. Indeed, the French Parliament recently approval the “burqa ban” pushed by Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party.

But according to Sylvain Crépon, a sociologist attached to the University of Paris West-Nanterre, Marine’s recent comments were aimed at the most staunch National Front loyalists. “She realised that her strategy of de-vilifying the National Front was effective for a certain segment of the electorate," Crépon said in an interview with France24.com. “But it is the party activists who will choose Jean-Marie Le Pen’s successor in the January primaries. Her comments were meant to remind these voters that she has not abandoned the party’s ideas."

French political circles will be watching closely to see if Marine Le Pen’s juggling act of refining her party’s image, rallying its base, and luring new supporters pays off on January 16. Up against Bruno Gollnisch, a party elder who has been accused of Holocaust denial, Marine Le Pen is still considered the favourite.

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