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France’s far-right leader attempts image change

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PARIS (AP) — Marine Le Pen has purged the old guard from her father’s extreme-right National Front party and is reaching out to Jews, maligned under his leadership, in her bid to be the next president of France.

Daughter may be more dangerous than dad, many contend, as she sugarcoats an old anti-immigrant message and vies for a real slice of power.

Polls suggest a couple of million people may vote for the far-right leader in April — and that momentum, the party hopes, could translate into seats in parliament in June legislative elections. President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to woo these voters into his conservative camp with themes like French identity that mimic Le Pen’s.

Marine Le Pen, 43, a divorced mother of three, took over the leadership of the party last year, replacing the charismatic Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 83.

He used his oratory skills to denounce the "decadence" of French society, promote his anti-immigration "French first" agenda and attempt to cast doubt upon the Holocaust.

She has concocted a name for her clean-up operation to trade the stigma of anti-Semitism for respectability: "de-demonize" the party.

An official support group that includes blacks, Jews and North African Muslims was set up to help chase the demons away. Gilbert Collard, a prominent lawyer who became a National Front trophy when he joined Le Pen’s team, said that displays of xenophobia, racism or anti-Semitism will be reason for exclusion from the party.

But experts say the party remains racist at heart.

"I think there is a strategy of dissimulation," said far-right expert Sylvain Crepon, of the University of Paris.

"She has understood that the National Front will never reach power alone," he said. The only way to get access is via alliances "so she breaks into the sanitized zone" of respectable politics.

"I think, effectively, that it’s more dangerous," he said.

And even if her chances are slim in the two-round presidential elections in April and May, Le Pen has set her political sights high. Her party hopes that a strong presidential showing will allow the National Front to gain a parliamentary presence for the first time since 1986 — and have a say in setting the national agenda.

"Jean-Marie Le Pen didn’t want to be a minister, didn’t want to be president. That wasn’t his objective, so fundamentally he really wasn’t dangerous," said sociologist Erwan Lecoeur, who studies the extreme right.

"Today, it’s the reverse. Marine Le Pen threatens the political system since she says she wants to run things and seems able to do so."

In contrast to her father, convicted of racism and anti-Semitism, Marine Le Pen has extended her hand to Jews in France and Israel. She met briefly with Israel’s U.N. representative on a trip last year to the United States and has given several interviews to Israeli media.

But for Richard Prasquier, head of the important Jewish umbrella group CRIF, the National Front is among French groups that simply "put a mute button on their anti-Semitism."

"We will not vote for the National Front," he declared Wednesday in a speech at the annual CRIF dinner, with both Sarkozy and his Socialist rival Francois 0Hollande in attendance.

Le Pen has directed her party’s xenophobic rhetoric toward a new target: Islam.

She made her public entree into the anti-Muslim arena in 2010, railing about Muslims praying in the streets on Friday, the Muslim holy day. She called it a sort of "occupation," in a reference to the World War II Nazi occupation.

Denying any racism, Le Pen, like Sarkozy, usually tackles Islam indirectly, by upholding the sacred French principle of secularism and denouncing globalization.

"It (is) forbidden to consider that France is also its churchbells and inherited cathedrals, and that the sudden eruption on our landscape of proselytizing signs like cathedral-sized mosques or minarets are not necessarily desirable," she writes in her just-published book "So That France Lives."

A vote for the National Front is a "vote for civilization," Le Pen has said.

But Le Pen’s idea of civilization has alarmed many.

She danced last month at a Vienna ball held annually by far-rightists — an event that coincided this year with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Her attendance was seen by critics as proof that daughter and father are fundamentally alike.

And many are also disquieted by the presence of hardline extreme rightists still inside the National Front structure, keeping alive fears of radical nationalism. Some, like her father, are directly involved in her campaign.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, a six-time presidential candidate, stunned France and the world by moving into the second round of the 2002 presidential race to face President Jacques Chirac. He was ultimately defeated by an extraordinary union of leftist and rightist voters, and the National Front went into a downward spiral.

Le Pen and his party did poorly in 2007 presidential and legislative elections and ended up nearly broke, forced to sell the party headquarters.

In these elections, it appears Marine LePen has revived the party’s fortunes. Polls consistently show her not far behind the second-place Sarkozy with 15-16 percent of the vote — and as high as 20.5 percent last month. Hollande enjoys a comfortable lead.

But holding back Le Pen’s ambitions is her struggle to secure the 500 signatures of local officials required to formalize her candidacy, suggesting she has yet to convince all of France that the National Front has changed. She needs to collect the signatures by March 16 in order to qualify for the election.

Le Pen formally requested a change in the French Constitution that would keep the names of signatories anonymous, thus protecting mayors who sign on her behalf from any community backlash. The Constitutional Council is to rule by Feb. 22.

As of Tuesday, Le Pen had only slightly more than 350 signatures, from a potential pool of 42,000 officials around France.

Even leading candidates sense that democracy will not be served if Marine Le Pen, with her considerable following, is not present in the election.

"It would be a problem, I admit it," Hollande said Tuesday in a television interview. Sarkozy said that a party drawing millions "should be able to be represented in the presidential race."

Several polling firms have already sounded the electorate to gauge what Le Pen’s absence would mean for other candidates. Conclusion: the overall turnout rate would fall and Sarkozy would profit most from new votes.

As she campaigns on amid the uncertainty, Le Pen has shown she isn’t short of fighting spirit.

Met by raucous protesters, some throwing water, on her arrival Monday in Reunion, a French department in the Indian Ocean, she kept smiling.

"I’m used to it," she said into microphones. "They bark, but they don’t bite."

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