CARPENTRAS, France (Reuters) - A huge 1990s election poster of Marion Marechal-Le Pen as a blonde toddler with her grandfather, founder of France’s far-right National Front party, greets visitors at her campaign headquarters.
Now a 25-year-old rising political star and France’s youngest lawmaker, she wants to win a December local election in southern France, to put the anti-immigration, anti-Europe party started by the maverick Jean-Marie Le Pen on a firmer footing for the 2017 presidential vote.
Like her aunt, National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, she hopes to bring the party into the mainstream, distancing it from the patriarch’s shock tactics, including comments playing down the Holocaust that Marine expelled him for this summer.
“We’re advancing step by step, we’re building credibility... this is reassuring French citizens and breaks the ‘fear argument’ that people use against us,” Marechal-Le Pen told Reuters at the Carpentras headquarters in a recent interview.
“We know that in this election the National Front plays double-or-quits,” she said. “Any FN region will be scrutinized, monitored.”
Polished, softly-spoken and comfortable smiling for selfies with supporters, opinion polls show Marechal-Le Pen neck-and-neck with former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives, with the Socialists, who rule both France and the southern Provence-Alpes-Cote-d‘Azur region, far behind.
It is one of up to three regions which polls show the far-right might win out of thirteen, with Marine Le Pen leading in the northern France Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, a former left-wing bastion.
While Jean-Marie Le Pen drew protest votes, his daughter and granddaughter have attracted more voters disillusioned with mainstream parties, tapping into anger towards the ruling Socialists about high unemployment and corruption scandals in the south as well as growing concerns about immigration.
“I’ve met her several times, she’s nice, she’s approachable. Marion Marechal-Le Pen is France’s future,” said 80-year old Marie-Therese Boyer at a campaign rally in Carpentras, proudly holding a signed campaign poster.
The retired farmer, who does cleaning jobs to make ends meet, is typical of voters who turn to the FN because they feel neglected by mainstream parties.
The FN won 11 municipalities out of 36,000 in elections last year. It also won more votes than any other party in last year’s European elections and has two seats, including Marechal-le Pen, in the lower house of France’s parliament and two representatives in the Senate.
Winning a first region would prove the FN has moved deeper into the mainstream and give Marine Le Pen and Marechal-Le Pen a chance to show they can govern, after attempts to run towns in the 1990s were widely judged to have highlighted FN shortcomings, including one illegal policy favoring French inhabitants over foreigners.
“We will absolutely respect the law until we are in government at the national level and can change it,” Marechal-Le Pen said.
A regional win could also help the FN’s prospects in the 2017 national vote and the two major parties - President Francois Hollande’s Socialists and Sarkozy’s Republicans - have been getting increasingly nervous about the prospect.
In 2012, Marine Le Pen won 17.9 pct of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections in 2012 but did not make it to the second round, unlike her father in 2002. Jean-Marie’s shock result triggered protests and many voted tactically to keep him out of power.
But with Marechal-Le Pen helping to bring a younger, more modern touch to the party’s image, FN wins provoke little reaction these days.
After a rocky start in politics when she burst into tears after a TV reporter’s question, she now speaks confidently in parliament and is at ease at campaign rallies, although she is not yet as skilled a speaker as her aunt and grandfather.
“She is a political heiress but certainly not a puppet,” said political analyst Joel Gombin “One should not under-estimate her.”
While cultivating a more modern image than her grandfather, she is no moderate and shares his views that immigration is to blame for much of France’s woes, tapping into concerns over the unprecedented numbers seeking refuge like other far-right and euroskeptic parties across Europe.
France “can’t afford” to take in Syrian refugees, she said, talking of “migratory submersion” and saying that, should she win in December, she would stop any subsidies from the region to refugees as well as to charities that help migrant workers.
The Provence-Alpes-Cote-d‘Azur region borders Italy and is one of the paths Syrian, Iraqi asylum seekers and others take to northern Europe and there is some sympathy to her views.
“She’s right to say there are too many migrants. We’re allowing more and more in when there are old people here who are starving,” said Boyer.
Although both seek to attract more mainstream voters, there are differences between Marine and Marion, including the latter’s close ties with her grandfather.
She is also seen as more conservative and took part in “Manif pour tous” (Protest for all) rallies against gay marriage laws which Marine avoided.
Marechal-Le Pen kept away from the public feud between him and her aunt during the summer and downplays any differences, insisting she is in politics to back and support her aunt.
“I don’t see where that (talk of rivalry) comes from,” she said. “Marine Le Pen belongs to her generation, I belong to mine. I got into politics for Marine Le Pen and with her as party leader.”
She nevertheless describes herself as a heiress to her grandfather, crediting him for persuading her to run in 2012 when she became the lawmaker for the Carpentras area aged 22.
“He told me if you don’t go for it you’re not a Le Pen,” she said.
Additional reporting by Pauline Mevel and Morade Azzouz; editing by Anna Willard