DOES Marine Le Pen still, as Bernard-Henri Levy once pronounced, have the whiff of sulphur about her? It matters whether she does or not because, as has long seemed inevitable to those of us who follow French politics, she has become leader of the Front National.
Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who formed the FN in 1972, put himself beyond the pale and, however hard he tried, could not put himself back inside it. How different will she be?
Le Pen père had attempted, over the past 10 to 15 years, to distance his party from the arena of shaven-headed, bovver-booted thugs, bigots and racists that the phrase “far right” inevitably brings with it.
I interviewed him at his palatial house in the Paris suburb of St Cloud four years ago, just before the last presidential election.
He told me that the FN welcomed Muslims and Jews and, indeed, could produce evidence of FN officials of north African origins; people who had just as much commitment to the cultural and social idea of France as any indigenous person, and who shared M Le Pen’s desire to keep things that way. He had also, it emerged, relaxed his loathing of homosexuals: something done, I was told, under the influence of his daughter.
So Marine Le Pen comes with a track record, in that respect. It is no wonder, given the attempts she has made to rid the FN of its policy-by-bigotry, that even commentators on the respectable right in France should be giving her a fair wind now. Her father sails off into the sunset with his ridiculous and offensive little ideas - such as Hitler’s genocide of the Jews being a “detail of history” - and gives her an opportunity to haul the party out of some sort of intellectual and, indeed, moral dark age.
I should be surprised if she does not take it, for the FN has a massive opportunity ahead.
Her father, remember, got into the last round of the presidential combat in 2002, thanks to a pitiful performance by Lionel Jospin as the notional main rival to the incumbent, Jacques Chirac. Also, however, many French voted for M Le Pen in the first round because of their dissatisfaction, as right-wingers, with President Chirac himself.
Nicolas Sarkozy must face the same threat, for the polls suggest that he has disappointed conservative France far more than his predecessor did.
Mme Le Pen promises to have two strong cards in her hand when she takes on allcomers in next year’s race. First, the social tensions caused by M Sarkozy’s failure to contain immigration are higher now than they were in 2007, with many mainstream, decent French people regarding their country as being under a full-scale cultural assault.
It is one that not merely affronts their customs and way of life, but one that in some urban areas seems to offer a challenge to the rule of law. It is also an enormous drain on the resources of a state for which the worst economic
terrain probably still lies ahead.
Second, and leading on from that economic point, Mme Le Pen wants the re-constitution of the franc and is profoundly Eurosceptic on all other fronts.
The souverainiste movement in France is one that cuts across typical party lines, though the FN is a grouping that unanimously opposes the received wisdom about Europe. If she can make the core of the FN’s beliefs about the restoration of sovereignty, especially economic sovereignty, rather than about the ethnicity or sexual orientation of some of her fellow French, then she will find she becomes attractive to much more than the 18 per cent of people who supported her father against M Chirac in 2002.
Between now and the campaign proper in a year’s time there is tremendous scope for the Sarkozy administration to have trouble on economic and other fronts, and for her to signal this as a further betrayal of traditional French onservatives.
Mme Le Pen is a fluent public speaker, has a cunning grasp of both tactics and strategy, and has a character tougher than an undercooked horse-steak, as her two ex-husbands can, apparently, reliably testify. If she gets an opportunity to take M Sarkozy on direct, it would be a brave man who predicted him to come out the better.
France could, in particular, have a desperate decision to make about its currency in the next year. Should the Germans refuse to continue to bail out weak economies around the continent (and even Belgium is said to be in the queue for such largesse now) the euro as we know it could be over. The easiest way for the Germans to salvage something from the wreckage is not to have others expelled from the currency, but to get out themselves and let a euro without Germany find its own, probably pitifully low and precarious, level.
France would then have to choose from three options: to stay in this weakened eurozone and risk going down with it; to go with the Germans and risk being priced out of world markets, rather as happened to Britain in the ERM before Black Wednesday; or simply to reconstitute the franc. Any of these policies would be a stick with which Mme Le Pen, with her long-held and deep-seated hostility to the euro, could very effectively beat M Sarkozy.
Her election will radicalise the right of French politics and make it less polarised. She is a different generation from her father and less weighed down with baggage. It will be interesting to see whether the inevitable volley of vilification that will come against from the left will make the slightest difference.
But the most nervous politician in France after her election can only be M Sarkozy.
Simon Heffer is associate editor of The Daily Telegraph