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It was distressing to see extremist candidates take a third of all votes cast in the first round of France's presidential election.

About 4 per cent opted for an assortment of marginal anti-capitalist candidates, and 11 per cent threw their support behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Left Front, a coalition that includes the Communist Party. But the major shock was the rise of the far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen. With 18 per cent of the vote, she will be a force to reckon with and might eventually become the major voice for the French right. The main contenders, centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate François Hollande, respectively won 27 and 29 per cent of the vote.

Beyond their official labels, Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen have much in common: They're both shameless populists. They both loathe globalization, capitalism and "liberalism," a word the French equate with unregulated market forces. They both resent the European Union – Mr. Mélenchon campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty while Ms. Le Pen wants to opt out of the euro zone and reinstall borders around France. They're both close to the Communists – Mr. Mélenchon represented them and Ms. Le Pen, who is especially popular with blue-collar workers, attracts many former Communist voters. And they both are formidable public speakers.

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Mr. Mélenchon hates Mr. Hollande's moderate views, but has thrown his support behind him. Mr. Hollande can thus count on a solid block of leftist voters for the final round on May 6. For a majority, he only needs to attract a fraction of Ms. Le Pen's supporters and about half of those who voted for François Bayrou, the centrist candidate who had 9 per cent support in the first round.

Mr. Sarkozy faces a much steeper hill. Since he has no room to grow, he must woo Ms. Le Pen's supporters. Before the first round of voting, Mr. Sarkozy took many leaves from Ms. Le Pen's book in the hope of siphoning the right-wing vote, as he did successfully in 2007. But this year, the magic didn't work – far-right voters preferred the original to the copy. Now, he's feverishly chasing National Front votes, using more and more of Ms. Le Pen's ultra-nationalist and xenophobic themes at the risk of alienating centrist voters.

The President's own party, the Union for a Popular Movement, is a large coalition that enjoys support from the democratic right to the centre-left; it might very well collapse if Mr. Sarkozy is defeated. This is exactly what Ms. Le Pen hopes for – she wants to lead a "new right" and become the major force opposing a Hollande government.

In just a few years, Ms. Le Pen has greatly transformed the Front. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder, was a grumpy right-winger known for his anti-Semitic outbursts, but she is a handsome, congenial and modern young woman. A divorced mother with a live-in boyfriend, she holds no anti-abortion or homophobic views, and of the 10 candidates who appeared on the first presidential ballot, she was the most popular among people 18 to 24.

Her plan is to push the Front deeper into the mainstream. She even intends to change its name – her companion Louis Aliot, who is also vice-president of the party, recently registered a new name, the Alliance pour un rassemblement national.

For now, Ms. Le Pen is the kingmaker of the second round.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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