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How Marine Le Pen moderated her image and brought herself closer to the French presidency

French politician Marine Le Pen arrives to deliver a speech during a meeting in Avignon this week. (Daniel Cole/Associated Press)
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AVIGNON, France — Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen tested the limits of her strategy to portray herself as a more moderate and broadly appealing politician on Thursday, taking her campaign to a city that voted decisively for the far-left contender in the first round last weekend.

Addressing a crowd waving French flags in Avignon, in southern France, Le Pen vowed that she would turn France into a global “power of peace,” called for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat for India and an African country, and attacked incumbent President Emmanuel Macron for having damaged press freedom.

It was hardly the speech one might expect from one of the most prominent far-right leaders in Europe, known for her crusade against globalism and immigration, whose potential to clinch the French presidency in a runoff election on April 24 has rattled capitals across the continent.

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The decision to hold one of her most important rallies in a leftist stronghold, located in the Vaucluse region that tends to favor far-right candidates, encapsulates the strategy she is pursuing in the days before the election. Her narrow path to victory against the centrist Macron will depend on her ability to fight abstentionism among her most likely supporters in Vaucluse and other far-right bastions, but to also make inroads in cities like Avignon.

Left-wing voters in Avignon and across the country hold “the key of the second round,” said Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polling at Kantar Public, a data analytics firm. The notion that Le Pen has a chance to attract significant support on the left shows how far she has come from the last presidential election five years ago, when Macron united a “republican front” against her and beat her by more than 30 points in a runoff.

Le Pen is running a platform that is in many ways as radical as five years ago and is in some cases even more extreme. The candidate, who refused to wear a headscarf in Lebanon in 2017, doubled down on her position last week by saying that her government would fine women for wearing headscarves in public in France.

French President Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen qualified on April 10 for a competitive runoff election on April 24. (Video: Reuters)

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But in contrast with 2017, she has adopted milder rhetoric, emphasized economic issues over concerns about radical Islam, and suggested she wants to change the French political system from the inside rather than to blow it up.

Whereas five years ago she called for a massive reduction in immigration to France, she now wants to hold a referendum on immigration, making her proposal less vulnerable to a wave of legal challenges but leaving little doubt for which outcome Le Pen would campaign.

She has also stopped talking about abandoning the euro or exiting the European Union. But she still wants to end the preeminence of E.U. law, for instance, by introducing preferential treatment of French citizens seeking jobs, though E.U. law requires all E.U. citizens to be treated equally.

The key question, when voters head to the polls on April 24, will be how many people find the new flavor of Le Pen a more acceptable choice than in 2017.

Polls suggest the answer is quite a few. The number of French who say they would never vote for Le Pen has shrunk by 10 percent over the past five years. And while Macron has accused Le Pen of continuing to promote “racist” ideas, voters don’t associate her with xenophobia as much as they used to, according to a Kantar Public poll from earlier this year.

Marine Valette, 23, said she would never have considered voting for Le Pen five years ago, as she considered her too “rude” and disagreed vehemently with her immigration proposals. Instead, Valette said she left her ballot blank.

But she had come to the event in Avignon on Thursday to reconsider that stance. Le Pen “has taken a step back and realized that there were things the people didn’t agree with,” Valette said, citing the proposal for a referendum on migration rather than an outright ban.

Onstage on Thursday, dressed in a red blazer with a white blouse in front of a blue screen, Le Pen switched seamlessly between references to “diversity” or national unity and her nationalist proposals. “Let’s be pragmatic,” she said, before railing against the E.U. institutions and saying they had their chance and missed it.

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She made little mention of immigrants. The enemy she kept coming back to again and again, raising her voice and changing her tone, was Macron. His name was met with loud jeers from the crowd of some 4,000, a response that at times appeared more emotional than the applause for Le Pen.

Bruno Décoret, 74, said: “Macron is in the process of assassinating France, he locked us up for two months, wants to force us to get vaccinated, and wants to take possession of our bodies. For now, Marine Le Pen is our sole remedy.”

Décoret said he noticed that Le Pen been relatively restrained in her public comments on immigration, but he trusted that was part of her electoral strategy and that she would restrict immigration once she was in office. “She’s a lot closer to the people these days,” he said.

Le Pen has been trying to moderate her image, to varying degrees, since taking over her party from her father. Jean Marie Le Pen is a polarizing figure who called Nazi gas chambers just a “detail” of World War II. His daughter changed the party name, from National Front to National Rally, and transformed it from a toxic fringe movement.

Her strategy appears to be most successful at attracting parts of the electorate “that are in great difficulty and where anti-elite sentiments are flourishing,” said Christèle Lagier, a political scientist at Avignon University.

Around the circular auditorium in Avignon, Le Pen’s face was plastered on posters with the slogan “give the French their money back.” Avignon draws tourists from around the world to its town squares and the palace that once served as the papal residence.

But behind the facades, the city is also one of the poorest places in southern France, with a poverty rate that exceeds 60 percent in some parts of the city. The primary concerns of voters here over the past weeks have centered on the economy and a perception that Macron has failed to address mounting inequalities.

In the first round of the election, far-left candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon won the city with 37 percent of the vote in Avignon. Macron came in second with 20 percent. But the total far-right vote, split between Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, came in higher at 27 percent.

Nationally, for the runoff, Macron remains the front-runner. But his advantage has shrunk to about six points, far closer than in the weeks leading up to the 2017 runoff.

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Frustration with the incumbent is typical in French politics. But his narrow lead also reflects that a growing number of French, including some on the left, appear to be willing to give Le Pen the benefit of the doubt.

In Avignon, Kim Caritoux, 24, said she has been torn between the Mélenchon and Le Pen. “I’ve really struggled between the two,” she said. “They’re both for an equal distribution of wealth.”

Outside the Le Pen rally on Thursday, a small group of protesters observed the crowd from a distance. “It’s horrifying to come here and see how many people showed up for her,” said Mohammed, a 25-year-old student, who declined to provide his last name because protests near the venue had been banned in advance.

He said he fears Le Pen could set up a “segregationist system and a system that will destroy liberty.” But he wouldn’t say whether he would vote for Macron.

The first round of France’s presidential elections is set for April 10. The Post’s Rick Noack explains the key issues and leading candidates. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Rick Noack, Jayne Orenstein, Jackie Lay, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)
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