On a snowy December evening, the featured speaker at the Center of Permanent Education in the northern French city of Lille had the mesmerized crowd hanging on her every word. The star of the night was no stand-up comic or self-improvement guru. It was Marine Le Pen, the youngest daughter of extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, winding up a campaign for what would become a successful bid for her father's seat as the head of their reinvigorated National Front (FN) party.
"Three years ago, the National Front was declared finished emptied out and pillaged by Nicolas Sarkozy," Marine Le Pen told the room, harking back to the 2007 presidential election, which Sarkozy won after seducing a huge number of FN voters to his side by tilting toward hard-line positions on immigration and crime. These days, Le Pen noted, polls show support for the FN surging with the 2012 presidential contest in view. "Together," she declared to loud cheers, "we will make France's political class tremble!"
To a large degree, it's already quaking. Le Pen's landslide election to the FN presidency during the party's Jan. 15 convention was only the latest in a series of triumphs that have made the 42-year-old attorney the most captivating figure in French politics. She has effectively been that since 2009, when she emerged as the new face of the far right by winning a municipal councilor's seat in the leftist stronghold of Hénin-Beaumont in northern France. The considerable talents for oratory and debate that she has demonstrated during media appearances since then further raised her public profile ahead of her campaign in late 2010 for the FN presidency, during which she spoke to the party's core while also catching the attention and changing attitudes of mainstream France.
The FN, its voters and Jean-Marie Le Pen have long been vilified as the pariahs of France's political scene. But the younger Le Pen seems to defend extreme-right policies with a moderate tone. As a result, many voters who once dismissed the FN as illegitimate find that its positions such as its antiglobalization protectionism, warnings of Islam's spreading influence and calls to dump the besieged euro and return to the franc now sound almost acceptable, especially with Marine Le Pen at its head. Recent polls indicate that she would score nearly 20% of the vote if France's 2012 presidential election were held today.
Le Pen rejects claims from critics that she's earned that support by peddling a platform of FN Lite, stressing that the positions she and her father hold are virtually identical. She echoes traditional FN calls to halt immigration, wrest French sovereignty back from the European Union, restore the death penalty for certain crimes and practice "national preference" to reserve jobs, financial aid and public housing for French citizens over foreigners all policies that her father championed to the jeers of most of France for nearly 40 years.
Yet she also acknowledges that being a twice-divorced working single mother provides her with more of a modern outlook than that of her father's generation of FN leaders. "I'm anchored in the reality of most people today," she tells TIME, adding that this firsthand perspective is one reason she, unlike older FN leaders, supports abortion rights. "I'm a product of my times and defend the policies of the National Front and its voters from that experience."
And she's good at it, which is a big reason that Sarkozy and his conservative government have repeatedly moved in Le Pen's direction over the past 18 months. To the outrage of those who oppose any pandering to extreme-right voters, the President has vowed to combat illegal immigration, appeared to stigmatize minorities in last year's national debate on French identity and expelled thousands of European Roma in what he called a "war against crime."
"Those and other measures inspired by the extreme right were intended to halt Marine Le Pen's spreading influence, but they did the opposite," says Stéphane Rozès, president of the Paris-based CAP consultancy. "They made Sarkozy appear to validate National Front claims of immigration's being responsible for rising crime and loss of French identity and led many unhappy voters to view Marine Le Pen as a credible voice that mainstream conservatives are trying to imitate."
Apparently. A poll in early December found 27% of people expressing a favorable opinion of Marine Le Pen a better score than her father enjoyed at his peak. Still, like her father, she has been at the center of several controversies, the most explosive of them provoked by anti-Muslim language that sounds even more overtly Islamophobic than her father's. She sparked a storm of protest in mid-December when she compared Muslims praying in the streets when their mosques are full to the illegal "occupation of territory" by the Nazis during World War II.
Le Pen's divisive message and xenophobia will likely never win over more than a minority of voters. Nevertheless, she could shift French politics to the right without ever holding national office. A third of supporters of Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) say they want the party to form an alliance with the FN. That means that a sufficiently strong showing by the FN in 2012 could make it an irresistible coalition partner for conservatives struggling to stay in power or looking for a way back to it from defeat.
"Linking up with Marine Le Pen is something some of Sarkozy's advisers and a certain number of UMP members are already considering," says Rozès, though he notes that a clear majority of conservatives dismiss the idea as political suicide. "That partnership would likely strengthen the extreme right at the expense of the traditional right and risk splitting conservatives who support dealing with the FN and those who reject it as a dangerous, antidemocratic force. But it's undeniable that some conservatives are already contemplating it." If Marine Le Pen keeps persuading voters to hear her out into 2012, French conservatives may finally decide they can no longer afford to turn their backs on her father's daughter.