SURESNES, FRANCE - The weather is bone-chilling, best fit for hot chocolate and a sweater. Even the steam of fresh crepes being flipped at an outdoor market cannot soften its bite.
So it may be no surprise that many shoppers brush past the activists handing out flyers bearing the smiling face of far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Municipal councilor Laurent Salles has seen it before. Not so long ago, few French admitted publicly to voting for Le Pen or her National Front (FN) party. Today, things are different, even in this once staunchly Communist suburb, where the Eiffel Tower is etched on the skyline.
Suresnes is now solidly center-right. Salles says he is hoping that growing concerns over immigration, Europe and Islamist extremism will tilt it even further.
“I’ve seen a change in how the population views us,” says Salles, who joined the FN three decades ago at age 16. “It’s a lot less conflicted because the fears [about the party] have lessened. They see us in action as elected officials.”
The party now wants to go mainstream in a big way, hoping voters will elect 48-year-old Le Pen as France’s first female leader. While the FN has long been a fixture in national politics, Salles is not alone in detecting a growing public acceptance.
“Five or six years ago many voters did not want to tell polling institutes they contemplated voting for the National Front,” says far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus. “Today they’re more outspoken, although the National Front has not changed much on issues like national identity, immigration and xenophobia.”
During a recent interview with foreign media, including VOA, Le Pen outlined presidential priorities that include holding a referendum on leaving the EU, closing French borders and pushing for an alliance with Russia and the United States to fight Islamist extremism.
She also defended populism rising across Europe and the United States.
“Is it those who want to defend the government of, for and on behalf of the people?” asked Le Pen, who was among the first European politicians to congratulate President-elect Donald Trump on his win. “If that’s the case, then I accept being called a populist.”
Riding voter anger
France’s April-May election is among Europe’s most closely watched this year, and Le Pen is riding a wave of voter anger over a lackluster economy, rising immigration and militant Islam.
Many predict Le Pen will lead April’s first round of voting, but ultimately lose the May runoff, probably to center-right frontrunner Francois Fillon. More recently, she faces a new challenger in former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is also capitalizing on his outsider status, along with his youthful, maverick image.
But Le Pen’s support remains sizeable, and she has an edge over her European counterparts.
“Usually extreme right parties are led by men,” says analyst Camus. “Now we have this woman in her 40s, who appeals as a modern woman and who is not only attracting elderly, white male voters, but younger female ones as well.”
At the weekly Suresnes market, computer technician Olivier Nicolas agrees with Le Pen’s views on immigration and border control, although he is uncertain whether he will vote for her.
“I don’t think she can win,” he adds. “There’s a real glass ceiling because of the media labeling the FN as far-right, even though its ideas are pretty much the same as the center right’s in the 1990s.”
But another shopper, 59-year-old Evelyne Nodex, believes France is ready for change.
“Left, right, it’s the same,” she says of the mainstream alternatives. “Things are stagnating. We’ve never had the National Front in power. Why would they be any worse?”