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Le Pen is slowly seducing voters with her France First pitch

The weirdest French election campaign ever has produced a winner. With her rivals dragged down by personal foibles, unforced errors and factional infighting, Marine Le Pen happily ridicules their haplessness and vows to make France fearless and fearsome – just like her.

U.S. President Donald Trump employed the same tactics en route to the White House, successfully depicting his country's political elites as spineless, useless and corrupt. But where Mr. Trump ran a chaotic campaign and veered constantly off message, Ms. Le Pen is an articulate and wily debater who makes mincemeat of flailing interviewers overwhelmed by her rapid fire of alternative facts.

That makes her strangely seductive even to voters uncomfortable with her fear-mongering and scapegoating of immigrants. Each new poll shows her narrowing the gap with either of her likely rivals on the final presidential ballot. At this rate, the May 7 runoff could be a real nail-biter.

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The far-right National Front Leader has not been spared the whiff of scandal – the European Parliament charges her office used more than €300,000 ($414,966 Canadian) in public funds to pay party workers – but she remains unscathed. She has refused to submit to police questioning and casts aspersion on the motives of the Eurocrats she blames for ruining France in the first place.

The 144-point election platform Ms. Le Pen released this month consecrates her transformation of the National Front from the single-issue party of angry white men her father founded, into a catch-all populist formation appealing to working-class voters, small-business owners, law-and-order types, Euroskeptics, French nationalists and secularists alike. The platform is a France First manifesto aimed at restoring French greatness. Sound familiar?

There she was last week, enduring the heckling of inmates at a suburban Paris jail and promising 40,000 new prison spaces during her first term. She was the only leading candidate to accept an invitation from prison guards to inspect the overcrowding that has made French prisons among the worst in Europe and breeding grounds for Islamic radicalism. Muslims are vastly over-represented, accounting for an estimated 60 per cent of inmates. Ms. Le Pen would increase the number of prison spaces by two-thirds – and fill every one of them.

A few days earlier, Ms. Le Pen was in Beirut, where she refused to don the head scarf handed to her in advance of a scheduled meeting with Lebanon's Grand Mufti, a Sunni Muslim spiritual leader. "Give my regards to the Grand Mufti, but I will not veil myself," Ms. Le Pen insisted as the cameras rolled. Planned or not, the stunt delighted her supporters in France. As did the headline in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper: "You are not welcome in Beirut."

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At the very least, her foreign excursion drew far more desirable coverage back home than did the Algerian visit of Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist sensation who is competing against the centre-right François Fillon to face-off against Ms. Le Pen in the May 7 final vote. Mr. Macron angered many of the Fillon supporters he will need to beat Ms. Le Pen on the final ballot by calling France's colonization of Algeria "a crime against humanity, a real barbarity." Not even French politicians on the radical left typically go that far and a suddenly irritable Mr. Macron, who had been surfing on a wave of favourable media coverage, spent several days on the defensive.

That is not the only pothole Mr. Macron's until recently charmed candidacy has hit. His campaign blamed Russian agents for cyberattacks on his its computers and spreading fake news about his personal life. The defiantly pro-European Mr. Macron, 39, is partly to blame for the rumours. He has made the most of his marriage to his former high-school teacher to garner gushing photo spreads in celebrity magazines, compensating for what Ms. Le Pen calls a lack of policy details on his part.

"The puerile fascination of the media for [Mr. Macron] is almost funny," Ms. Le Pen has scoffed, comparing the journalists covering him to "young girls outside a Justin Bieber concert." Mr. Macron has promised to release a full campaign platform this week.

The first of two debates, scheduled for March 20, is likely to be dominated by sparring between Mr. Macron and Mr. Fillon as the two men vie for a second-ballot spot. Ms. Le Pen is virtually guaranteed one. She is winning the campaign. She could also be headed for a Trump-like upset in May.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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