Their physical resemblance is uncanny. Their shared extremist politics are striking too. But it's the differences between National Front (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and daughter Marine that give special punch to their unusual partnership. For over three decades, the elder Le Pen has been notorious for his thuggish demeanor, racist barbs and ardent nationalism, a combination that cemented his appeal to the aging reactionaries who make up the FN's base. But in the past year, 34-year-old Marine has emerged as the party's measured, modern, almost moderate voice, its ambassador to a new world of younger, socially diverse voters. And last week, the elder Le Pen formally blessed the strategy of repackaging his bedrock extremism when he passed over his trusted lieutenants to name Marine FN vice president and his own heir apparent.
The controversial appointment came during the FN's 12th party congress, which closed on the first anniversary of the election that stunned France by entitling Le Pen to face incumbent Jacques Chirac in a runoff; Le Pen was thrashed. But Marine's promotion is not a sign that her 74-year-old father intends to retire or tone down FN policy. On the contrary: he is embarking on a major offensive. The aim is to both broaden the party's message and voter base during regional elections next year, and land Le Pen the presidency of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region (PACA) a massive and traditionally FN-fertile zone. "If we win our bid for PACA," Le Pen promised the delegates gathered in Nice, "we'll be in a position to conquer the presidency in 2007."
Le Pen has always viewed the FN as a vehicle for his own presidential ambition, and the party's regional campaign strategy and Marine's political progress support his angling for the Elysée. Next year, Marine told Time, Le Pen père will focus on the south where high immigration, fear of crime and an aging population fit the classic FN bill. Marine will meanwhile front a wider national movement by campaigning for a seat in the Paris region, using a softer, more moderate message. "Paris elections draw more media attention," she explains. "Everyone must work where their talents are most productive."
For Le Pen that will mean tapping into what is "already a lot of unhappiness with the conservative government," notes his former adviser, Lorrain de Saint Affrique. "He'll try to repeat last year's trick of being the 'intifadeh candidate' the one presenting himself as the rock and slingshot that voters can use to attack the establishment. Marine is working to ensure more voters will be willing to do that by the 2007 presidential election."
Since she grabbed a higher media profile during her father's presidential runoff last year, Marine's slicker style has provoked interest outside the party and reproach within it. She's defended controversial FN positions and her father's track record without resorting to his ranting. Divorced, recently remarried and a mother of three, she has also sparked the ire of the party's fundamentalist Catholic wing by bucking official FN policy to support abortion rights one of several antitraditional stands that may lure women to what Marine acknowledges is a predominantly male FN voter base.
But the Le Pens' manner of luring new voters is raising hackles among party insiders. After her appointment as vice president, Marine finished a dismal 34th in a poll for the FN's central committee. Scoring highest was Bruno Gollnisch, the FN's director general and a faithful Le Pen lieutenant many party members openly back as his only legitimate successor. "I think there's some tension and fear that young and new faces are gaining too much influence," Marine retorts. "But Jean-Marie Le Pen has apparently decided that's what our movement needs."
De Saint Affrique says that Le Pen will run the show until he dies, and use Marine as his stand-in should he ever relinquish the presidential prerogative. Marine agrees, in part: "Discussing succession is ridiculous. Jean-Marie Le Pen may run for another 20 years or won't even need to if he wins the presidency in 2007." But De Saint Affrique thinks the elder Le Pen's decision to anoint Marine will be decisive even after the man himself has left the scene. In a party that's always been about Le Pen, he predicts, the faithful will instinctively turn to another one.