01/20/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Marine Le Pen: A Fatal Attraction?

Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front (FN) the French far-right party, is getting nearly 20 percent of votes in recent polls. These incredible scores were never achieved even by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who got as far as the second round in the 2002 presidential election. Three months into French presidential elections, his daughter is a serious threat to Nicolas Sarkozy the outgoing president. But how could a woman, who came into politics in the wake of her father, who has extreme right wing views and no ministerial experience, become so popular?

 Since she succeeded Jean-Marie Le Pen in January 2011, the iconic figure of the French far-right for more than 50 years, Marine Le Pen has become a key personality in French political life. To her political opponents, she is turning out to be an even more formidable candidate than her father, often equated with "evil incarnate."

Marine Le Pen doesn't provoke the same rejection as her father. She presents a much more pleasant face of the extreme right. She is blonde, a mother of three children and divorced twice. She does not hesitate to play up her femininity to mark her difference with her father. Modern Marine Le Pen, 43 years-old, is in tune with the times. She arouses more sympathy among the French electorate than the more sulphurous and older Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was certainly charismatic but he kept a distance from his activists. By contrast his daughter has succeeded in creating a familiarity with her supporters who call her "Marine" to show she is one of them.

Marine, the president of the National Front also distances herself from some of her father's more extremist views. She hasn't repeated the outrageous statements on the Second World War which her father was prone to make. She doesn't speak of the gas chambers as a "detail" but on the contrary she states unambiguously that "the camps were the height of barbarity" and prefers to glorify "the resistance of 1940." The president of the FN has been trying to downplay the extremist side of her party and make it more respectable. Activists with shaven heads, those who support violence or those who are nostalgic for Marechal Philippe Petain's Vichy regime between 1940 and 1944 are invited to be "discreet."

But it's what she has to say on the economic crisis that is really attracting people. She has added a social dimension to the usual National Front project. Many working class French, especially those disorientated by globalization and relocation are lured by her simplistic answers. She advocates getting out of the European Union and returning to the old national currency, the franc. To fight against the closure of factories, Marine Le Pen has a radical solution: protectionism. "Our country," she says using frightening rhetoric, "is in the process of underdevelopment, of Third Worldization."

The vast majority of economists are agreed that the solutions advocated by Marine Le Pen would be a severe blow to French finances. But Le Pen prospers on a climate of mistrust surrounding the French political class. Many voters have given up on the main parties. Many have the feeling of being forgotten. Most of them believed in Nicolas Sarkozy's promises of reform. But he has failed to improve their lives. Marine Le Pen attracts those who no longer believe in politics and want to send an alarm signal. Most surprising is she even wins over former voters from the left or far left who no longer feel represented.

Of course Marine Le Pen is also pushing those old themes which her father exploited so successfully: The fight against immigration illegal and legal and defence of national identity. She has also added inflammatory views on Islam, comparing street prayers to an "occupying army." "There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation and it weighs heavily on local residents," she said. She doesn't hesitate to use fear or inflame a problem which concerns a minority. She presents French suburbs as war zones. "The situation is dramatic in the suburbs. There are almost tribal areas like in Pakistan where it is necessary to protect buses by cavalry to cross neighborhoods. And tomorrow, what we will do? Will we bring out the tanks?" she said. This outrageous language has been resonating with French people who feel frightened by social change and who feel ignored by current politicians. She has been playing on their longing for a closed society, the France of the past.

So Marine Le Pen is a very dangerous candidate, less repulsive than her father, but with the same ideas. She could get to the second round of the presidential election. The other candidates and above all Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, the two main candidates should not underrate the "Le Pen phenomenon." They should not think that French voters who vote for her are all racists and xenophobes. On the contrary the politicians need to listen and to respond to the voter's anxieties. Otherwise Marine Le Pen will continue to rise in the polls and will draw more disillusioned voters to her. And one day the far-right may run France.