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Is Marine Le Pen ideologically distinct from her father?

This could develop to be the most important French political dilemma in all its modern history.

The consequences of guessing wrongly are too grim to comprehend. If the bet paid off, however, then the bounties would be difficult to overstate.

For some, the future success of Ms Le Pen is the most realistic trigger for a continent-wide shift to nativism and cultural salvation. Unlike the knuckle-dragging failures of the UK BNP, Germany’s NPD or Sweden’s ‘Democrats’, Le Front Nationale is witnessing a consistent rise in national popularity. During the past few weeks, the party even topped a mainstream voters poll; the first time a far-right party in France has done so in living memory.

So why the surge in confidence for a party long written-off as consisting of Holocaust-deniers, scientific racists and German-hating loons?

Immigration is a fairly obvious answer. But this is a problem for every European country, and only in France has the far-right made substantial gains.

The answer is surely Marine Le Pen herself.

A true novelty on l’extreme-droit, Le Pen’s public image has almost supplanted that of the party she represents. From a public relations standpoint, this couldn’t be better news. Instead of skinheads and anti-Semites, Le Front Nationale now conjures up the charms of an expressive, confident, beautiful woman. Indeed, the very fact Le Pen is female appears to change the tone of the party’s policies. The FN no longer seems like hard, violent fascism – but something softer, reasonable and more agreeable.

By-itself of course, this is an illusion. There is nothing reassuring about a woman leading a party, (unless you’re one of those young, masochistic conservatives sent wild by the idea of a fuhrer with great legs). All that matters is the manifesto, and whether the policies contained therein are worthwhile.

So let’s see.

The current manifesto of the FN emphasizes ‘culture’ and the preservation of ‘French Identity’. Strict controls on immigration are demanded, but the old talk of ‘humane repatriation of non-Europeans’ has been excised. Criminal migrants, Islamists and those perpetually unemployed would be deported. The economy would be heavily deglobalised.

There is much in this to like, and much to disagree with. I agree, for example, with the deportation of Islamists, a tougher line on criminals and the reintroduction of the death penalty.

FN Economic policy however is far more troublesome. ‘De-globalization’ and protectionism can be ruinous, and peaceable relations between the countries of Europe is something not to be gambled with.

As to the long-term prospects of Le Pen, we will have to wait for the municipal and EU Parliament elections next year, at which the party is hyped to make substantial gains.

Personally, I don’t think Le Pen will rise all the way to Elysee Palace, and this is probably for the best. Though she herself may be likable, we are more than entitled to be worried about those lower down the pecking order, for whom reality is a web of Zionist conspiracies, black helicopters and Yankee malevolence.

Still, that the FN’s success demonstrates a desire for change in France is to be welcomed. Let’s hope Le Pen is not the only one capable of seizing it.