Le Pen came third with 18.2 percent, becoming a kingmaker for the May 6 runoff between Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. She was already looking ahead to further electoral battles.
“This first round is the start of a vast gathering of right-wing patriots,” Le Pen told ecstatic supporters at her Paris headquarters. “The Battle of France has only just begun.”
Succeeding her ex-paratrooper father Jean-Marie just last year, the 43-year-old lawyer gambled on a break with his legacy, bringing the modernity of a working mother in couture outfits to a party born in the bitterness of France’s loss of empire half a century ago. Many doubted whether bringing a dash of “nice” to the “nasty party” could work. Sunday may have shown that it has.
Beaming with joy, she joined about 500 of her supporters sipping champagne and dancing to disco classics after beating the record vote achieved by the elder Le Pen in 2002.
“This is a vote of recognition,” said a 45-year-old doctor who would give her name only as Anne.
“Marine has been demonised and it’s about time that they realise that one in five French people are behind her.”
Aides to Le Pen indicated she will address the second round voting issue at a May Day rally in Paris. However, it is unlikely that a woman who on Sunday declared she had “destroyed the monopoly of the two parties of the banks and of finance and multinationals” will come out in support of either frontrunner.
“She has said before there would be no alliance,” National Front vice-president Marie-Christine Arnatu said. “I don’t think she will change her mind now.”
The party faithful agreed.
“I will go and vote but it will be a blank vote,” said a 57-year-old engineer called Gerard. “Sarkozy has betrayed us, and as for Hollande, between those two diseases, I’d rather die.”
BETTER THAN FATHER
Not making it to the second round may be a blessing in disguise for Le Pen. Her father stunned France in 2002 by winning 16.8 percent of the first-round vote, beating Socialist Lionel Jospin to face conservative Jacques Chirac in a runoff.
But he was trounced as millions of left-wingers rallied in spite of themselves behind the centre-right incumbent to ram home their rejection of Le Pen and all he stood for. The National Front struggled to make an impact in the 2007 election, when Sarkozy ran on a security and anti-immigration platform.
Doing better than her father’s 2002 score now gives Le Pen a solid base to move forward on her core targets – June’s parliamentary election and, in the longer-term, the 2017 presidential race.
Describing herself as the candidate of “popular revolt”, she has said her focus this year is to destroy Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, the latest political heir of the postwar Gaullist tradition, and create a new, broad movement of the right.
There are already signs of in-fighting in the decade-old UMP, which like predecessors in France’s ever-shifting party system, could fall apart if he loses the presidency. A rightist faction might break the Gaullist taboo on electoral alliances with Le Pen if UMP lawmakers feel their seats are threatened.
“What we can see tonight is the great cacophony between the left and right. At the legislative elections, the French will have a definitive choice of a new right,” said Louis Aliot, National Front vice-president and Le Pen’s partner.
The party believes it can win seats in parliament seats for the first time since 1986, when a brief experiment with proportional representation gave it 35 seats. Since the return of a two-round system of constituency voting, the National Front has so far failed to secure a majority in any district.
Jean-Marie Le Pen said his daughter’s presidential score boded well: “I think this shows that at the parliamentary election, we will have a lot of seats,” he said.
“There is great hope for us.”
Since taking over the party leadership in January 2011, Le Pen – a tall, striking blonde who favours sharp suits and high heels – has gone out of her way to soften the National Front’s “nasty party” image and present it as a party ready to govern.
She has disowned her father’s comments about Nazi gas chambers being a “detail” of history and described herself as “to the left of U.S. President Barack Obama“.
She launched her campaign a year ago on an anti-euro, protectionist economic programme aimed at the young and disillusioned workers. As she lost some momentum in opinion polls, she also reverted to traditional far-right themes, hardening her tone further after a young Muslim in southern France, claiming links to al Qaeda, shot dead seven people.
Twice divorced with three children – one named after national icon Joan of Arc – Le Pen joined her father’s party at 18 in 1986 and abandoned her law career in 1998 to provide legal advice to the party.
She was first elected to political office in 1998 as a regional councillor in the northern rust belt. She ran for parliament in the former coal mining town of Henin-Beaumont in 2007. She lost to a Socialist in the second round, polling 42 percent, and is expected to run again for the same seat in June.
Henin-Beaumont’s left-leaning mayor Eugene Binaisse, highlighted the younger Le Pen’s commitment to electoral success over crowd-pleasing populism: “She wants power,” he said.
“That’s the difference with her father.”