Far right a fixture in France despite Le Pen defeat

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  • Marine Le Pen
    Marine Le Pen
    French lawyer and politician
  • Jean-Marie Le Pen
    Jean-Marie Le Pen
    French right-wing and nationalist politician

Paris (AFP) - Despite Marine Le Pen's drubbing in the French presidential election, her far-right National Front party expanded its footprint in the political landscape -- and confirmed its move into the mainstream.

Her anti-immigrant, anti-Europe stance won a record 34 percent of ballots cast on Sunday, which translates into the support of nearly 10.6 million voters.

The score is nearly double that of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential run-off, which conservative Jacques Chirac won by a landslide.

"We can no longer believe that the FN is a flash in the pan and that it is going to end," Virginie Martin, a political analyst at Kedge Business School told AFP.

In an era of unemployment hovering at 10 percent, a string of large-scale terror attacks and scandals clouding the major parties, the FN's France-first nationalist message has proven seductive in parts of the country.

Its proposals to curb immigration, crack down on security and beef up protectionism have found fertile ground in economically depressed rural areas.

"The winds of history are with us," 29-year-old Johan, who did not give his full name, told AFP at an election night party for Le Pen backers in Paris.

For decades the party was a toxic brand in French politics, linked to anti-Semites, ex-colonialists and xenophobes.

But under Marine Le Pen, who took over the leadership from her father in 2011, the FN has worked to clean up its image.

- 'Absolutely no desire' -

Her work to soften the party's image has paid off with successes in regional and local elections, culminating in Sunday's historic score for the party.

The result "must be seen for what it is: the normalisation of supporting the far-right in French society," historian Nicolas Lebourg wrote in the Liberation daily.

At the same time, the party's hard lines on immigration and protecting French identity have seeped into the discourse of the nation's big parties.

Failed conservative candidate Francois Fillon's campaign platform included calls for annual immigration quotas and a ban on the full-body Islamic burkini swimsuit.

"The FN has managed to implant its identity politics across the political spectrum," said Sylvain Crepon, a sociologist and a top FN expert.

The forces that have for so long barred the FN, which was founded in 1972, from the presidency are also weakening.

Despite calls to block Le Pen, nearly one in three voters refused to pick her or centrist rival Emmanuel Macron in Sunday's vote, the largest number to avoid choosing between the finalists in nearly 50 years.

Le Pen also forged her first ever alliance during the run-off campaign, winning support from a right-wing eurosceptic whom she promoted name prime minister if she captured the presidency.

Her tie-up with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan was seen as ending the FN's pariah status among parties closer to the mainstream.

"This agreement was absolutely historic. It put the FN with the field of classic political parties," said Martin, the analyst at Kedge Business School. "They (FN) are now in search of being normalised."

After Sunday's loss Le Pen said the party needed to undergo a "profound transformation" ahead of parliamentary elections in June. One of her aides said the grouping would even change its name.

Her goal is to vastly expand her number of seats in the National Assembly, where the FN currently only has two lawmakers.

She will also need to soothe a party left disappointed by a campaign that included some misfires like her poor performance in the televised debate against Macron and blurriness on her long-held insistence that France quit the euro.

Le Pen's ambitious 27-year-old niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who has been an MP since 2012, said it was time for "reflection."

For now, Marechal-Le Pen says says she has "absolutely no desire" to run for president. However, she had five years to change her mind.

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