Marine Le Pen, kick-off of her campaign, tries to embody credibility

PARIS — Marine Le Pen has long used fiery rhetoric and hard-hitting proposals to fight his way to power in France. But for her third presidential bid, she has adopted an unusual tone: serenity.

On Saturday, Ms Le Pen, a far-right leader, used social media to kick off the final stretch of her campaign with a 3.5 minute video speech intended to portray her as a credible and controlled stateswoman. With a large white scarf tied around her neck, she is depicted in the video strolling through the glass pyramid of the Louvre, speaking in a reassuring tone, her words accompanied by soft piano music.

“Faced with the dangers that lie ahead and the challenges that lie ahead,” said Ms. Le Pen, “I call on you to follow the path of reason and of the heart.”

The peaceful undertones of her speech were in direct response to violent messages from Éric Zemmour, another far-right candidate, whose campaign launch video was packed with clips of crumbling churches, burning cars and violent clashes with police that paint a picture. projected from a chaotic France.

Mr Zemmour has said he is running for president to “save” his country, which he portrays as attacked by Islam, immigration and left-wing identity politics. In contrast, in Ms Le Pen’s video, she was surrounded by smiling people as she traveled through France, visiting businesses and ports.

Less than 100 days before the presidential election, much is at stake for Ms. Le Pen. After finishing in third place in the 2012 campaign and being defeated in the second round of 2017 by Emmanuel Macron, she hopes her third bid will be the winning one. To pull that off, she’s wagered on dropping the populist posts that once characterized her, and instead redoubled her efforts to “demonize” her party, the National Rally, which is often associated with flashes of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

But fierce competition among right-wing candidates has tarnished Ms Le Pen’s early lead in the polls and has left many wondering if she will always remain a contender.

The video of Mrs. Le Pen – set in the world-famous Louvre museum, which was once the primary residence of the French kings – was also a way for her to rekindle a confrontation with Mr Macron, who is widely expected to he is looking for another term. In 2017, when he was president-elect, Mr Macron delivered his victory speech in front of the same glass pyramid in the Louvre.

“Macron is the adversary,” said Philippe Olivier, a close associate of Ms Le Pen and Member of the European Parliament. “That’s what the symbolic act of being in the Louvre is all about.”

Even while espousing her party’s hard-hitting nationalist, anti-immigrant view, Ms. Le Pen has softened her old populist economic agenda by dropping a proposal to leave the eurozone and advocating a more orthodox debt policy. She has also broadened her platform to include more everyday topics such as energy prices, the theme of her Friday campaign stop in Saint-Malo, in the west of France.

But two dark-horse candidates have emerged that have made the prospect of a runoff with Mr Macron more uncertain: Mr Zemmour, a polarizing far-right polemicist who has seen a rapid rise in the polls, and Valérie Pécresse, a center-right politician whose harsh coverage of national security and immigration issues touches on some of Ms. Le Pen’s own favorite campaign themes.

Recent polls show that Ms Le Pen and Ms Pécresse are neck and neck in the first round of the April elections, with each expected to win around 17 percent of the vote. But that still puts them about 10 points behind incumbent Mr Macron.

The greatest threat to Mrs. Le Pen’s ambitions is Mr. Zemmour. Studies have shown that his full promotion of reactionary ideas has cost her many potential voters, and some have said the two far-right candidates could be sabotaging each other’s chances.

But Mr Zemmour appears to have lost momentum in recent weeks – he is now at 13 percent in the polls – and Ms Pécresse is wedged between Macron’s right-wing policies and competitors leaning further to the right than she is.

“Ultimately, it is likely that both Pécresse and Zemmour have already reached the peak of their campaigns,” said Antoine Bristielle, head of the voting department at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute. He added that Ms Le Pen had weathered the competition quite well by targeting her campaign at the working class, a section of the electorate Mr Zemmour has failed to attract.

Mr Bristielle and Mr Olivier, Ms Le Pen’s assistant, also said that Mr Zemmour’s radical message has had the unexpected effect of normalizing Ms Le Pen’s ideas, making her long-standing strategy to the National Rally purge was sparked indirectly.

Mr Bristielle said recent polls have shown that many right-wing voters, representing roughly 50 percent of the electorate in total, would end up choosing the candidate on the right with the best chance of winning.

That’s what Ms Le Pen is betting on, should she take a lead in the polls.

By appealing to a conservative bourgeois electorate that has been a long way from voting for a populist candidate, Mr Zemmour is building “a reserve of votes for the second round” that could ultimately go to Ms Le Pen, Mr Olivier said.

“In the end, I think Zemmour is positive for us,” he added.

About Ms Le Pen, Mr Bristielle said: “Having Zemmour by her side to give her a pool of votes, and also to make her a regular, less cross-border candidate – that could be beneficial.”