France’s National Front on the path to power

On the campaign trail with Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, the Economist reports: Ms Le Pen’s celebrity welcome in the tiny northern French town of Doullens is a mark of how far she has transformed a once-toxic fringe movement, stained by neo-Nazi links and anti-Semitism, into an almost respectable party aspiring to govern. Five years ago voters who felt drawn to her father, Jean-Marie, a gruff former paratrooper who founded the party in 1972, still kept their approval half-hidden until election day. Today, they display no such reserve towards his daughter.

On the campaign trail ahead of departmental elections later this month, the crowd in the Doullens market is thick and Ms Le Pen’s progress through it snail-like. After dropping in on Les Deux Ailes hunting shop, its rifles displayed in the window like fine patisseries, Ms Le Pen stops in the street market for selfies, kisses children and stoops to greet those in wheelchairs. This is a politician who is on the up, and knows it. “We are on a path towards…power!” she declares, with a broad grin.

Polls suggest that the FN will come top in the first round of voting in the elections on March 22nd, grabbing at least 30% of the vote. This would beat its previous best score of 25%, in last year’s elections for the European Parliament. The Front may not go on to win many local assemblies, as voters from centre-left and centre-right will gang up against it in the second round. But to the FN this is not a concern. It is fielding 7,648 candidates, in 95% of constituencies, up from a third in 2011, as part of a longer game: to secure hundreds of seats, even if in opposition, in order to build up an army of elected officials across the country who can help prepare Ms Le Pen for the presidential election in 2017.

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