Reinventing Le Pen

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Hoping to repeat his shock 2002 election performance in which he made it to a runoff with President Jacques Chirac, Jean-Marie Le Pen has undergone a major image makeover. Guided by his youngest daughter and campaign strategist, Marine, the leader of the far-right National Front uses softer language to sell more inclusive policies. Although he's currently polling around 13%, French analysts warn that similarly low numbers had preceded his 2002 shock second-place finish. Marine Le Pen discussed her father's evolution and prospects with TIME's Bruce Crumley.

TIME: What's your projection for Le Pen in the presidential race?

Le Pen: We think Jean-Marie Le Pen will again make the runoff. All the elements — and failings — that helped him succeed in 2002 are still present today in even bolder form. French voters understand the politicians who have been in power since the last election have been incapable of solving their problems.

TIME: Do you have a preference for a second-round rival?

Le Pen: No — we'll take whomever the French voters give us. They're all generally the same, especially on a fundamental issue they all agree on and we don't: Europe. As the 2005 defeat of the referendum on the European constitution shows, the French people share our positions, not theirs. Elsewhere, Madame Royal is struggling to lure the extreme left behind her; Sarkozy tries to seduce our voters with Le Pen positions while trying to demonize Le Pen; and Bayrou keeps flipping to the left when attacking the right, then flopping to the right as he takes on the left. It matters very little which of these three we face in the second round.

TIME: What's with the Le Pen makeover?

Le Pen: People change with age and experience. Meanwhile, positions for which he was long demonized are now shared by many people. He's aware the French people may soon be calling him to power — perhaps tomorrow. We have the duty to prepare for that call.

TIME: What was your role in that?

Le Pen: As a strategist, first of all. There are certain sections of French society our message wasn't getting to — immigrants or minorities, civil service workers, women, the suburbs. And we had to explain our program to them better. And we had to present ourselves better as a party capable and ready to govern when the call comes.

TIME: OK, but can Le Pen credibly call himself "a center-right candidate" as he has?

Le Pen: When he said that, he was reminding people he began his career as a center-right politician. Since he hasn't changed since, it means it's France's mainstream political class that has veered left. We're neither left nor right.

TIME: Don't you risk losing the party's hard-core voters by opening up?

Le Pen: No. Our core is still there, but growing. Our traditional voters know that the party has a bigger role to play, and the only way to do that is by appealing to a wider ranger of voters. We're now clearly demonstrating we're a party capable of governing, and ready to do so.

TIME: Still, why would a black or Arab French citizen want to vote Le Pen today?

Le Pen: One reason minority and suburban voters tell us they are attracted is because they've been manipulated for years by mainstream parties, and got nothing in return. We're telling them to affirm their French citizenship, love of country, and their responsibilities to France, and we'll reserve them all the rights and privileges of citizenship — work, decent housing, aid when they need it.

TIME: Despite his program's stigmatization of immigrants?

Le Pen: People in the banlieue have been the first and biggest victims of immigration. Immigrants are ushered into these urban cul-de-sacs, never get out, and the situation there just deteriorates. The result is, residents there are now agreeing with Jean-Marie Le Pen that enough is enough: we can't provide for everyone.

TIME: How long will Le Pen keep running?

Le Pen: A long as Jean-Marie Le Pen is alive! He has never seen politics as a job, but rather as a mission. As long as he feels France is going in the wrong direction, and needs new leadership, he'll feel it's his duty to run.

TIME: Do you want to succeed him as party leader?

Le Pen: When the time comes, I'll offer my vision and strategy for the future, but then it's up to party members to decide. To be honest, I'm not sure I'll want the responsibility to goes with that job. I've seen close up how heavy, at times brutal the price of those positions can be, and I'm not sure I want that.