PARIS. Marine Le Pen has long used fiery rhetoric and harsh proposals to push her way to power in France. But for her third presidential proposal, she chose an unusual tone: serenity.
On Saturday, Ms Le Pen, the far-right leader, used social media to launch the final leg of her campaign with 3.5 minute video presentation intended to portray her as a trustworthy and reserved stateswoman. She has a large white scarf tied around her neck. In the video, she is shown walking around the glass pyramid of the Louvre and speaking in a hopeful tone, her words are accompanied by soft piano music.
“Faced with the dangers that await us and the challenges that lie ahead,” said Ms Le Pen, “I urge you to follow the path of mind and heart.”
The peace-loving undertones of her speech were in direct response to the violent messages put forward by Eric Zemmour, another far-right candidate whose campaign launch video was replete with images of churches collapsing, cars on fire and violent clashes with police creating an image of a chaotic France.
Mr. Zemmour has said he is running for president to “save” his country, which he describes as under attack from Islam, immigration and left-wing identity politics. In contrast, Ms Le Pen’s video shows her traveling around France, surrounded by smiling people, visiting businesses and port cities.
The stakes are high for Ms Le Pen with less than 100 days before the presidential election. After finishing third in the 2012 campaign and being defeated in the 2017 runoff by Emmanuel Macron, she is hoping her third entry will be a winner. To try to achieve this, she has made a bet to shed the populist ideas that once characterized her and instead redoubled her efforts to “demonize” her National Rally party, which has often been associated with outbreaks of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
But fierce competition among right-wing candidates has eroded Ms Le Pen’s early lead in the polls and left many wondering if she will always remain in the shadows.
Ms Le Pen’s video, set in the world-famous Louvre Museum, once the main residence of the French kings, was also a way for her to liven up a confrontation with Mr Macron, who many expect will run for re-election. . In 2017, as President-elect, Mr. Macron delivered his victory speech in front of the same glass pyramid at the Louvre.
“Macron is an adversary,” said Philippe Olivier, a close aide to Ms Le Pen and a member of the European Parliament. “This is what the symbolic act of being in the Louvre means.”
Although she holds to her party’s hardline nationalist and anti-immigrant vision, Ms Le Pen has toned down her longtime populist economic agenda, backing away from the eurozone exit proposal and advocating a more orthodox debt policy. She also expanded her platform to include more mundane issues such as energy prices, the topic of her campaign on Friday in Saint-Malo in western France.
But two dark horse candidates have emerged that have made the prospect of a runoff with Mr Macron more uncertain: Mr Zemmour, a polarized far-right polemicist who has seen skyrocketing in the polls, and Valerie Pecresse, a centrist-right politician whose tough statements on national security and immigration violate some of Ms Le Pen’s favorite campaign themes.
Recent polls show that Ms. Le Pen and Ms. Pecresse are head to head in the first round of the April elections, and are expected to each receive about 17 percent of the vote. But it still lags the incumbent, Mr Macron, by about 10 points.
The biggest threat to Ms Le Pen’s ambitions is Mr Zemmour. Studies have shown that his strong promotion of reactionary ideas has cost her many potential voters, with some saying that the two far-right candidates could sabotage each other’s chances.
But Mr. Zemmour seems to have lost momentum in recent weeks – he now stands at 13 percent in the polls – and Ms. Pecresse has found herself caught in a corner between Mr. Macron’s right-wing politics and rivals who stick to her more right.
“After all, it is likely that both Pecresse and Zemmour have already reached the peak of their campaigns,” said Antoine Bristiel, head of polls at the Jean Jaurès Foundation Research Institute. He added that Ms Le Pen has fared fairly well by focusing her campaign on the working class, a segment of the electorate that Mr Zemmour has failed to attract.
Mr Bristiel and Mr Olivier, Ms Le Pen’s aide, also said that Mr Zemmour’s sweeping statements had the unexpected effect of normalizing Ms Le Pen’s ideas, indirectly fueling her long-standing strategy to sanitize the National Rally’s image.
Mr. Bristiel said recent polls have shown that many right-wing voters, who collectively make up about 50 percent of the electorate, will end up picking a candidate from the right who is most likely to win.
That’s what Ms Le Pen is banking on if she comes out ahead in the polls.
Mr. Zemmour, by appealing to a conservative bourgeois electorate that has long refused to vote for a populist candidate, is creating a “reserve of votes for a runoff” that could eventually go to Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Olivier said.
“At the end of the day, I think Zemmour has a positive attitude towards us,” he added.
For Ms Le Pen, Mr Bristiel said, “having Zemmour by her side to provide her with a pool of votes, and in addition to make her a normal, less transgressive candidate, could be beneficial.”