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Le Pen's World: French Nationalism at Heart of Campaign

FILE - Marine Le Pen of the National Front party is seen as making the runoff in the French presidential election but failing to win. (L. Bryant/VOA)

France is partnered with the United States and Russia in a global battle against Islamic militants. Francs, not euros, fill the pockets of French citizens. Borders are so secure that illegal immigration no longer fuels fears of terror attacks or drains public coffers.

That is France as envisioned by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a leading candidate for president in the spring election: no globalization, no European Union, no open borders. The nation is its own master.

It's a vision that holds increasing appeal for voters once put off by the image of Le Pen's anti-immigration party as a sanctuary for racists and anti-Semites. A series of deadly extremist attacks, 10 percent unemployment and frustration with mainstream politics have helped make the party she has worked to detoxify a potentially viable alternative.

Early polls place her as one of the top two contenders. The other is former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a conservative who would slash the ranks of civil servants and trim state-funded health care — an untouchable area for Le Pen whose campaign slogan is "In the Name of the People."

Le Pen believes her chance of victory has been bolstered by Britain's decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump's election to the U.S. presidency, for her revelatory signs of a world in transition with nationalism and protectionism the new watchwords. She speaks with confidence of winning, saying "I will" change France.

"This page in the history of the world is turning. We will give back to the nations reasoned protectionism, economic and cultural patriotism," she said recently. She assured such an approach won't stop a deepening of international ties.

Like Trump, Le Pen, 48, a mother of three and lawyer by training, envisions improved relations with Russia, which she and other National Front officials have visited. But she takes it further.

"I want an alliance to emerge between France, the United States and Russia to fight Islamic fundamentalism because it's a gigantic danger weighing on our democracies," she said at a meeting last week with the Anglo-American Press Association.

"Terrorism is a pistol in the hand of the guilty" and only an alliance can defeat it. "I don't only fight the pistol. I fight the ones who hold it," she said.

For Le Pen and her supporters, "massive migration," notably from Muslim North Africa, is supplanting French civilization and at the root of many France's modern woes. "On est chez nous" ("We're in our land") is a mantra at National Front rallies.

Le Pen insists she has no problem with followers of the Islamic faith, but wants people who espouse radical political ideas in the guise of religion to be put on trial and expelled before they install Sharia, or Islamic law, in France.

Traditional Muslim dress, which many in France consider a gateway to radicalization, could disappear from public view should Le Pen win the presidency. The National Front's No. 2, Florian Philippot, said last weekend that Le Pen's platform calls for extending a 2004 law banning "ostensible" religious symbols like Muslim headscarves from French classrooms to include the streets. Philippot assured on the France 5 TV channel that "yes, it is part of her project."

Le Pen took over leadership of the National Front in 2011 from her father, party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her make-over included sidelining him. The elder Le Pen's party membership was revoked last year after he repeated an anti-Semitic reference that had drawn a court conviction.

But the slogan "French First" — coined by the elder Le Pen in 1985 — remains alive under Marine Le Pen.

Newcomers of all stripes would have to spend several years paying a stipend before availing themselves of free school and health care, Le Pen has said, benefits she considers a draw for immigrants. A National Front statement this month linked lack of shelter for French homeless with the "massive migrant flux."

Nonna Mayer, a leading expert on the party and its electorate, said Le Pen has "gone half-way in changing the party," ridding it of its long-time anti-Semitic image, but making Islam the enemy.

"At the heart of the party of Marine Le Pen ... there is something which is not really compatible with the values of democracy. That's national preference," she said. "It's the idea that one must keep housing, social benefits, family stipends, employment to the French."

For Le Pen,"The enemy is the other. The other is the immigrant and the immigrant is Islam," Mayer said.

Le Pen emphatically rejects the label of extremist, proudly calling herself "a patriot." The words "democracy" and "democratic" roll often off her tongue.

Yet her entourage includes one-time members of an extreme-right movement once noted for its violence. A former leader of the hard-core Identity Bloc in Nice, Philippe Vardon, joined National Front ranks and quickly won a councilor spot in regional elections.

Under Le Pen, the National Front was France's big winner in 2014 European Parliament elections, taking more seats than any other French party. But she wants to do away with the EU, which she claims has stolen national sovereignty, and the euro currency, which she describes as a ``knife in the ribs'' of nations, ruining economies.

Her EU exit formula is "very simple:" try immediately to negotiate a return of borders, currency, "economic patriotism" to protect French jobs and industry and freedom to pass laws unadulterated by directives from Brussels. Six months later, she would call a referendum and counsel remaining in a "new Europe," if negotiations are fruitful, or advise bailing out as Britain has done.

"My program cannot be put into place if we remain subjugated by European diktats," she said. "I see the grand return of nationalism."

Le Pen is expected to present her full presidential agenda during a Feb. 4-5 convention. But she set the tone with her New Year's greeting to the French, a "wish of combat" to defeat political adversaries she contends represent the interests of banks, finance, the media — the "system" she decries.