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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 February 2007, 20:13 GMT
France's Le Pen builds lasting legacy
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC News, Lille

Jean-Marie Le Pen
Mr Le Pen came in second in the 2002 election
This gathering of Jean-Marie Le Pen's supporters opened to the unlikely strains of the theme music from the film Pirates of the Caribbean.

In his early political days Mr Le Pen once sported a black eye-patch. But he abandoned that years ago although he has found it harder to cast off the piratical image.

His controversial comments - like his description of the Nazi gas chambers as "a point of detail" in World War II or his remark last week that the 9/11 attacks were just "an incident" - continue to give him an image as something of a political loose cannon.

But that matters little to his supporters. They believe that they are the outsiders, excluded by the system.

It is a theme capitalised on in the National Front's rhetoric.

The uncertainty over Mr Le Pen's ability to gather the 500 sponsorship letters from elected local officials needed to get his name onto the ballot paper is being played up by Front spokesmen as yet another sign that they are the underdog grappling with the establishment.

Strident nationalist

Lille is a good place for Mr Le Pen to launch his presidential programme.

The convention is being held in the Grand Palais, a gaunt concrete conference centre which looks as though it has seen better days.

It could be a metaphor for the region as a whole. This industrial area has been hard hit by recession.

"It's a region that symbolises economic hardship," as one speaker put it and it is a place where Mr Le Pen's stridently nationalist and populist message goes down well.

Behind the stage was a vast screen bearing a projected image of seven jet fighters, soaring into the sky, trailing smoke of red, white and blue.

Above this was the slogan "With Le Pen - Let's Revive Our France".

One of the principal speakers today was Marine Le Pen, the candidate's daughter.

With few of the rough edges of her father, she is directing his campaign and is responsible for the effort to give him a more modern and a somewhat more moderate look.

Marine Le Pen speaking to the convention - 24/2/2007
Marine Le Pen is trying to modernise the National Front
"France is going down the drain," she said.

"The French people are losing the joy of being French. We need a statesman, a man with character who can look into the future, who will give sovereignty back to the French people". That man, she said, was Jean Marie Le Pen.

But for all the manicuring of his image, Mr Le Pen's message still represents very much the traditional face of the French far-right.

What he sees as the ills of immigration remain at the heart of his politics.

Stalls at this convention represent a weird combination of ancient and modern.

The paraphernalia of the campaign trail - mugs, tee-shirts, key-rings and posters - sitting side-by-side with books about veterans of the Algerian war and tracts hinting at an international conspiracy spreading the virus of "mondialisme".

The term loosely translates as "globalisation" but conveys a sense of older and darker conspiracy theories posed by the threat from "cosmopolitan forces".

Political legacy

Mr Le Pen is presently trailing in fourth place in the opinion polls.

If he does gain sufficient sponsors to enter the race he is going to have to struggle to replicate his success of 2002 when he defeated the Socialist candidate at the first presidential ballot, winning through to the crucial second round of voting.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's biography has been massaged by his supporters to cast him as a man of destiny.

He will not become president. But in its 30 or more years in existence, the National Front has had a significant influence on the French political scene.

It has shaped the way immigration has been handled as an issue.

And now - whoever they vote for - opinion polls suggest that between one quarter and one fifth of the French electorate agree with his ideas.

That will be Mr Le Pen's political legacy.

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