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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 18:46 GMT
Can Le Pen win French election?
By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Paris

Jean-Marie Le Pen
How far will Jean-Marie Le Pen go this time?
Jean-Marie Le Pen has predicted that he can improve on his 2002 performance at this year's presidential election - and even win it.

Last time he defied the odds to reach a final run-off with Jacques Chirac.

In a New Year message to the press, the 78-year-old leader of the National Front said this year he would probably face the socialist Segolene Royal in the second round.

Two opinion polls in December gave him a higher level of support than his first-round score five years ago of just under 17%.

The veteran campaigner is not put off by new surveys this month that have seen his share drop to below 15%.

"This time I can win the election," he says, "because I will probably be facing a candidate of the left."

The other main parties have gone out of their way to address the issues that lay behind Mr Le Pen's shock success last time.

Much to their frustration, his grassroots support has remained constant.

Anti-establishment

In Noyon, an hour to the north of Paris, a handful of shoppers brave the early morning cold to buy fruit and vegetables at the small market in the main square.

Segolene Royal
Mr Le Pen envisages a run-off between Ms Royal and himself
The town is beset by economic and social problems. High unemployment and youth crime have consistently boosted the vote for the National Front.

In both the last two presidential elections, Mr Le Pen has come top in the first round ballot.

"It's become unbearable here, you can't go out at night," says one stall-holder.

"They call the fire brigade for nothing and then stone them. Doctors and electricity workers have to get a police escort. It's the immigrants. Sorry to say it like this, but it's all the Arabs, the north Africans. They want to run the place."

Mr Le Pen has lost nothing of his abrasive style in his verbal assaults on the political establishment.

But there have been subtle changes in his message. Last week he rejected his "extremist" tag, describing himself in an interview with Paris Match as being "a man of the centre-right".

He accepts that immigrants who are prepared to integrate as part of the French nation can stay.

Image change

His daughter Marine, who is widely tipped to succeed him, has been leading a campaign to "de-demonise" her father's image and that of his party.

Recently she launched a drive to attract black and Arab voters, unveiling a poster featuring a young north African woman.

Marine Le Pen
The way Marine Le Pen presents herself is appealing to many voters because she doesn't have a racist or xenophobic discourse
Ahmed El Keiy
Beur FM news editor
She denies that it contradicts one of the National Front's main policies of "national preference", insisting it has nothing to do with racism.

"It's completely false. It applies to all French people, whoever they are," she told the BBC.

"It's about giving priority to French people - in employment, housing, social benefits - compared to those who don't have French nationality."

There are some signs that the message is getting through.

Broadcasting from Paris, the radio station Beur FM - "beur" is slang for Arab - targets a largely north African audience in France.

Its news editor Ahmed El Keiy says a minority of younger listeners are being won over.

"The way Marine Le Pen presents herself is appealing to many voters because she doesn't have a racist or xenophobic discourse," he argues.

"They're trying to present themselves as a party who may unite the French nation."

'Extremes' meet

But Mr Le Pen has not quite lost his capacity to provoke outrage.

Just before Christmas he said that anti-Semitism "can be funny" when expressed by a comedian such as Dieudonne, who he met last autumn.

French comedian Dieudonne
Dieudonne's statements on Jews have attracted controversy
The controversial entertainer is popular with some among the French-African community but has been convicted for anti-Semitism.

Some commentators see such moves as part of a deliberate strategy.

"Le Pen is trying his best to seduce different components of the French republic - the blacks, the Arabs, the Jews also - to divide, to rule," argues Ahmed El Keiy.

"Dieudonne comes from the far left and Le Pen comes from the far right," says Jean-Yves Camus, author of Extremism in France.

"But both have common enemies - the political system as a whole, and Israel and the so-called Zionists."

Both presidential election frontrunners, Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, are well ahead of Mr Le Pen in the opinion polls.

He has his work cut out if he is to repeat his success of 2002.

Some believe that whatever he does, he has already succeeded in shifting the political agenda in France firmly in his direction.


SEE ALSO
France gears up for April polls
24 Oct 06 |  Europe

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