A year ago, France's far right National Front party shook the nation, when its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen placed second in presidential elections. But today, speculation centers not on the 74-year-old Mr. Le Pen, but on his 34-year-old daughter, Marine. The younger Le Pen is giving the party a softer image, but many believe its extremist message remains the same.
The National Front's traditional May Day rally through the streets of Paris was smaller than the one a year ago, when it seemed, unbelievably, that France's far right finally had a shot at the presidency. Nonetheless, its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was in fighting form. Standing at the Place de l'Opera, and framed by a bannered backdrop of rolling French hills and the message, 'Le Pen, France, Peace,' Mr. le Pen railed against crime, immigration and the European Union.
But the new star of the party was standing to Mr. Le Pen's right. It is his youngest daughter, Marine. In a year, she has soared from virtual obscurity to TV news regular. Last month, her father appointed her one of the party's vice presidents. Now, speculation simmers she will someday take over for her father as leader of the National Front.
An expert on the political far right, Monna Mayer, believes Marine Le Pen could be a formidable asset in attracting new supporters to the National Front, especially women who have traditionally shunned its tough, macho reputation. "She gives a more modern image of the party. She is working herself. She has divorced. She says she understands women who have to get an abortion. All this could attract more modern and emancipated women," she says.
Although Mr. Le Pen finished second in last year's presidential election, it was a distant second. He captured just 18 percent of the vote. Still, that was the highest vote tally in the National Front's 30 year history.
Then, in legislative elections last June, not a single Front candidate won a National Assembly seat, including Marine Le Pen. And last month, Mr. Le Pen finally lost his seat in the European Parliament for assaulting a political opponent in 1997.
More than half of French voters tell pollsters they consider Mr. Le Pen a racist and a danger to democracy. But while the party is down, it is far from out of French political life. Public opinion polls indicate that, if an election were held now, Mr. Le Pen would receive even more votes than he did last year, perhaps as much as 20 percent of the total. And one poll indicates as many as one third of French voters agree with at least some of his ideas.
And Monna Mayer, who wrote a book about why so many people voted for Mr. Le Pen last year says, all the elements exist in France for the party to rise again. "We are in a context of socio-economic recession -- the level of unemployment is going up. We are in a situation where the world seems frightening since [September 11], there's a fear of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. And that's good for Jean-Marie Le Pen," she says.
And perhaps for Marine Le Pen, too. French surveys indicate that she is rapidly becoming well known in France. A twice-married lawyer and mother of three, Ms. Le Pen shares her father's gift for verbal sparring, and charismatic speeches. But she does not share his past. Mr. Le Pen is best known for having dismissed the Holocaust as a detail, and for allegedly torturing opponents during Algeria's war of independence.
In a recent interview, Ms. Le Pen said her entire life has been shaped by being the daughter of Jean Marie Le Pen. Ms. Le Pen said she ultimately turned to politics, after being virtually ostracized during her brief career as a lawyer. Today, Ms. Le Pen heads a new movement called, Le Pen Generations. Its aim is to draw new supporters, and remake the image of a party perceived by most French people as the home of working-class racists.
Generations member Jean-Pierre Emie is the kind of member the party wants to advertise. A lawyer with offices off the elegant Champs Elysees, Mr. Emie agrees with the Front's calls to reduce immigration, but he says that does not make him a racist. He praises Ms. Le Pen's political abilities, but notes she is still not her father's designated successor. That role is filled by long-time party member Bruno Gollnisch, whom colleagues describe as brilliant but uncharismatic.
Indeed, reaction to Ms. Le Pen among National Front supporters is mixed. Some say she offers a good media presence, but little else. Others, like Jean-Pierre Schenardi, believe she is a natural leader. Mr. Schenardi is a veteran Front politician from Nice. He has known Marine Le Pen for years, and describes her as dazzling, and courageous.
It's hard to tell how much Ms. Le Pen's politics differ from her father's. She supports abortion as a last option, which her father does not. But she echoes Mr. Le Pen's support for the death penalty, less immigration and for giving French citizens so-called national preference in jobs and other matters.
At the May Day rally, Kacem Arabia sold flowers, and listened to Mr. Le Pen's speech. Mr. Arabia, who immigrated from Morocco about 10 years ago, said he found Mr. Le Pen's discourse against immigration depressing. He says both Mr. Le Pen and his daughter are racists, a charge they deny.
Party insiders call Marine Le Pen the clone of her father, and experts like Jean-Yves Camus agree the two are very similar. "I don't know if she shares her father's ideas about the Jews, the black people and so on. Maybe not. But so far, she did not say her father's remarks were offensive," he says. "I haven't heard that. On immigration, she's saying what her father's said since 1972. Not more. But not less."
Mr. Camus has published a book on the National Front. Like several other analysts, he believes Marine Le Pen will become the party's next leader. Her father has claimed he will not retire until he is 95-years-old, and he has indicated he might run for president again in 2007. But he has also hinted he might move into a different role within the party, at least temporarily, in the next few years. That could make way for a new generation of right-wing French leaders, perhaps including his daughter.