It's impossible to imagine a greater contrast between the father and the daughter. The father is Jean-Marie Le Pen, the old bruiser of the French far-right and the former leader of the National Front. Though he took his fascist-style front a long way in the fractious politics of France, his xenophobic skin-head brand was in the end just too gauche for the nation of political chic, locking him into a perpetual ghetto of loyal voters; so far and no further.
The daughter is Marine Le Pen, a lawyer, well-dressed, personable and charming. Earlier this year she came top in a leadership poll after her father slipped into retirement. She has all the style that her father lacked, a barrel-load of chic, and an ability to communicate across boundaries. She has made extremism acceptable; or rather she has discarded all of her father's useless ideological baggage in a political rebranding that looks to take the Front into the centre of French political life. Nicholas Sarkozy, the unpopular president, like Obama facing re-election next year, is worried; he has reason to be.
Yes, the anti-Semitism and the Nazi apologetics have gone. In place of the thuggish skinhead entourage the leader surrounds herself at rallies with young women in t-shirts. A lot of the France-first programme is still in place, a programme based on concerns about mass immigration, but the message is infinitely more subtle: "When I talk about the immigration problem, I don’t talk of hate, or xenophobia, or Islamophobia or fear but pragmatism. We cannot afford to let everyone in."
It's a message that has an ever widening appeal, especially as the French are as concerned as any by the growing impact of Islamic extremism. She is not against Islam, no, she is against the "Islamification" of French society, the incompatibility of a secular and enlightened tradition with medieval concepts of Sharia law. A party that once drew on the most obscurantist and reactionary features in French politics is now appealing to the ethos of 1789 and all that followed. The irony could not be greater.
Sarkozy, as I say, is worried. On the basis of present polls, it looks as if Marine - a much cleverer and more media -savvy performer than Sarah Palin - could be a serious contender in 2012, all the more worrying because her message is taking voters from the right and from the left. It's all playing into her hands, not just the fears over Islamification but the threat to French identity presented by the European Union and globalisation, most typically represented by the discredited socialist banker (is that not an oxymoron?!) Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The left is in disarray; Sarkozy’s tepid middle is not much better.
Marine in so many ways is a symptom of the disquiet that people feel over loss of control in a rapidly changing world. There are things about the brave new Europe that people in North America may not be fully aware of. Voters have effectively been disenfranchised - or better said the franchise is irrelevant, as the European Union moves in an ever more integrated direction. Not just France but across the Continent we have entered a post-democratic age, where decisions are taken by bureaucratic elites, distrustful of populism, any form of democratic participation. A few years ago the French rejected a proposed European constitution in a national referendum, only to find the same thing repackaged in the Lisbon Treaty, adopted without a vote.
Disempowerment, that's the essence of the NF's new appeal and Marine's electoral popularity. Working-class voters, more threatened than any by a new and fluid European and global economy, are deserting their traditional socialist and communist loyalties. Breaking one barrier Marine has broken another; she is winning support among the young and the middle-class, able to identify with her in the way they could not with her antediluvian father.
Personally speaking I don't think she will come anywhere close to winning in 2012, but that may not be her intention. French politics is in a flux, undergoing a serious seismic shift. Next year the National Front may emerge, more Phoenix-like than ever, as the party of the mainstream, with support right across the political spectrum, drawing on disquiet and disillusionment with the European 'ideal' and with traditional political elites. The National Front is now better placed than ever, a remarkable achievement given that Marine has been in control for only a few months. Hers is perhaps an idea whose time has come, though as one French academic said, respectability is one thing, credibility quite another.