Times have changed at the Front National. The era when Jean-Marie Le Pen would bang on about gas chambers being "just one detail of the Second World War," highly contagious AIDS, and filling military trucks with undocumented aliens is now officially over. Over the last eight years, his daughter Marine has polished up the image of the FN to widen its appeal. Now that it has been dressed as a "respectable" populist party, she believes that the French extreme right can look forward to a future of being able to forge political alliances.

After decades spent defending a more orthodox FN doctrine, the aging patriarch has fallen into step behind his daughter, and the role of guardian of dogma, has been taken up by the party vice-president Bruno Gollnisch — a Frontist of 27 years standing, who along with Marine Le Pen has also set his sights on the presidency. So this year’s party congress, which opens on 15 January Tours, will mark a significant turning point for the FN. Not only is Jean-Marie Le Pen standing down after 38 years, but the battle to succeed him will be fought between his daughter and one of his most successful disciples. As to the outcome, Jean-Marie Le Pen is hoping that his dynasty will perdure.

The young divorcée vs the professor

The face-off between the modern young divorcée, Marine Le Pen, and the aging academic Bruno Gollnisch will be a contest between two different styles, two strategies, and two generations. He likes to say that he is the brains, and she is the communicator. Marine Le Pen has said that she can understand why women seek abortions, while Gollnisch wants the party to bring together all the diverse strands of the far-right: Holocaust negationists, anti-Semites, colonialists, and Catholic fundamentalists. She on the other hand is an advocate of protectionism to counter "economic and financial totalitarianism."

He appears increasingly archaic, while she has sought out the limelight and campaigned tirelessly in the markets of Hénin-Beaumont, a depressed town in the Pas de Calais where she came very close to securing a majority on the local council. But even more importantly, she has the right brand— afterall, she is a Le Pen — which is a huge advantage in an extremely hierarchical party that is under the tight control of the boss.

Marine Le Pen is a women of her time, who does not share her father’s obsessions: she has no desire to rewrite the history of WWII or the war in Algeria. What she wants is an up-to-date more powerful FN that is similar to the populist right-wing parties in other European countries: the Italian Northern League, Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands, and the Sweden Democrats who recently won twenty seats in parliament.

As political scientist Nonna Mayer points out, “the European populist right-wing discourse singles out Muslims as people who do not share our values: a group that is intolerant of homosexuals, women, and Jews. This is a clever ploy to turn the argument on its head, a way of saying, they are the ones who are 'racists'." The first step for Marine Le Pen was to impose a ban on the ostentatiously racist sallies for which her father was notorious, and to eradicate anti-Semitic rhetoric. Then she established a new target, Islam which has replaced the immigration theme launched by the FN in 1978, and later appropriated by Nicolas Sarkozy.

Three quarters of the French population categorically reject the FN

Now the watchword is the protection of France’s secular society. “It’s a more presentable and respectable platform to delegitimize Islam," remarks Nonna Mayer, who adds: "But the underlying programme and the heart of the discourse remain the same. The party is still demanding preferential treatment for French citizens — only the sales pitch has changed." Another tactic has been to phase out references to colonisation, which has now been replaced by the ‘clash of civilisations’ and allusions to 9/11. As a result, Islamophobia can be “justified” by simply referring to stories in the news: Sakineh who has been sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, the attacks against the Christian community in Egypt etc.

According to a recent survey conducted by the French national consultative committee on human rights (CNDH), 23% of French citizens have an aversion to Islam, which is not based on the rejection of another culture, but on a desire to defend progressive values: secular society, feminism, and sexual equality. This is how Marine Le Pen responded to a journalist’s question, when she was taken to task for comparing a Muslim pray-in to protest at the shortage of mosques in Paris to the German WWII Occupation: "I have heard more and more stories about how some neighbourhoods are hostile to women, homosexuals, Jews… and even to French people and white people.”

And it is a strategy that is working: according to the latest polls, between 27% and 33% of the electorate approves of Marine Le Pen, and 12% to 15% intend to vote for her. Ms Le Pen has not yet succeeded in dismantling the barrier that surrounds her party which is still categorically rejected by three-quarters of the population. But past experience has shown we should always be wary of the FN.