By Geert De Clercq
AMNEVILLE, France (Reuters)- Amneville, a town in the Moselle region of northeastern France, does not look like a fault-line in the euro zone. The smell of grilled chicken wafts over the marketplace on a recent Saturday morning, the CD vendor plays German oom-pah music, and the sky behind the ochre clock tower is a steely blue.
Yet the single currency is a target for an unusual politician canvassing stallholders and shoppers in this town near the German border.
Fabien Engelmann, a 32-year old municipal plumber with tight-cropped hair, was an activist with France's leading trade union and a Trotskyist for many years. Later he joined the far-left "New Anticapitalist Party". This year he switched party again, but not on a leftist ticket.
He joined France's famed far-right National Front, and he was not the only one.
This year, five trade unionists have joined the minority party that made its name with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Since January, Le Pen's daughter Marine has been in charge of the party, and Engelmann says she is a magnet.
"It really is the arrival of Marine Le Pen that convinced me to join the National Front," Engelmann told Reuters. "She has an economic program that is much more geared to defending the little people, the workers, the popular classes of France."
Marine Le Pen is reshaping France's political landscape and the tremors go beyond people like this reconstructed Trotskyist. Her father played up worries about immigration, but the anxiety Marine addresses is economic and deep. The National Front's new target is the oppressive power of global finance, and the mood she is tapping spreads across Europe.
Traditionally in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-of-center UMP party wins the votes of the self-employed, farmers and retirees. Government workers, young people and urbanites favor the Socialists. The swing voters, blue-collar workers and low-level employees are the National Front's constituency. They are tired of making sacrifices to shore up the single currency and fed up with losing jobs to global rivals. To make things better, Le Pen is promising to pull France out of the euro, reinstate protectionist barriers, and reassert the state's supremacy over market forces.
Unlike her father, she is being taken seriously by French opinion makers. The media shied away from Jean-Marie's rants, but Marine has been on the front page of every magazine and newspaper and is a regular on prime-time TV. She already ranks third in polls for the April-May 2012 presidential election although she is unlikely to win.
Her score in an early October Ipsos voting intention poll was 16 percent, behind Socialist challenger Francois Hollande at 32 percent and Sarkozy's 21 percent. In 2002, her father beat Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin with just 16.86 percent of the first-round votes. Sarkozy's biggest fear is that Le Pen could knock him out in the first round of the two-round vote.
According to a TNS-Sofres poll in September, 16 percent of the French have a favorable opinion of the National Front, with 76 percent taking a negative view. That's the party's best rating since 2007.
"Our ideas are gaining ground," says Jean-Richard Sulzer, the man in charge of the party's economic program, who is a professor of finance at the Paris-Dauphine University, one of France's top business schools. His glee is evident as he points out a protectionist Socialist Party goal which echoes one of the Front's. "They are spreading like an oil slick."
JOAN OF ARC
At the entrance to the National Front's headquarters, an anonymous building in the suburb of Nanterre, stands a small statue of Joan of Arc. The 15th-century peasant girl who led French soldiers to victory is the Front's mascot. She symbolizes its rejection of foreign domination.
Inside the building, the party sells election paraphernalia playing on Le Pen's first name. Marine means "navy" in French and the lighters, pens and T-shirts are all in navy blue. "It is very French, navy blue. It is a color that is part of our identity," says Marine Le Pen.
Nostalgia and identity are still core National Front concerns, but Le Pen has moved beyond immigration. The new Front rejects all the ideas that have driven European economic growth in the past two decades: globalization, free trade and the dominance of services and the financial industry.
The party offers a radical alternative. To restore French competitiveness it will quit the euro; to boost employment it will close French borders to cheap Chinese imports, reindustrialize and empower the state's regulatory role. And it will bring the banks to heel.
For some in towns like Amneville, scarred by the loss of jobs as its steel mills and factories close one by one, this sounds like an idea worth trying. In the eyes of the working classes, power is no longer held by politicians but by the financial markets, say Alain Mergier, a sociologist, and Jerome Fourquet of polling institute Ifop. The European Union, far from protecting workers, overexposes them to the effects of globalization.
The working classes are the most eager for France to abandon the euro, Ifop polls show: nearly one in two blue-collar workers wants a return to the French franc. It's a similar picture in Germany and the Netherlands.
Le Pen also wants a return to a metallic currency standard that would include gold and silver to prevent unbridled money-printing. Another proposal -- pure heresy for the French government -- is to allow the state to fund itself with cheap loans from the central bank, rather than paying market rates to banks or bondholders.
Tall, blonde and telegenic, Le Pen, 43, is a twice-divorced single mother and formidable debater, with a fast wit and a knack for killer one-liners delivered in a gravelly smoker's voice. Trained as a lawyer, she has been working for her father's party since 1998 and made her leadership bid with her father's backing in January. She won 68 percent of the votes, defeating Bruno Gollnisch, her father's longtime right-hand man.
Since taking over, she has put her party's finances on a firmer footing, selling a former headquarters to clear old debts. She has also deftly distanced herself from her party's far-right ties. In March, she expelled a young Front militant after a man resembling him was pictured making the Hitler salute in front of a Nazi flag, and she has since thrown out a dozen or so other members.
In a September radio appearance discussing a former comrade's plan to run for president on a right-wing platform, she told radio network France Info: "The extreme right certainly needs a candidate, since it is not me."
She delights in overturning received ideas, and disdains Sarkozy's ruling UMP and the opposition Socialist party, PS, lumping them together as the "UMPS" -- no difference between them. She blasts both for turning their back on the French model of a protective state, saying they have submitted to an ultra-capitalist model of globalization "based on the law of the jungle".
"The National Front today is the only movement that proposes solutions. The other political formations, all they do is propose, under a different form, what they have already tried before," Le Pen told Reuters in an interview.
She goes on to emphasize how her policies are on a collision course with the received wisdom of what she calls the evil troika: the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank.
"The real fault line is between nationalists and globalists, between economic patriots and those who believe that nations and borders must disappear and that there should be no obstacles whatsoever to commerce, that everything is for sale and everything can be bought, and that there should be no controls on the flows of capital, products and people," she says.
A STRONG STATE
Marine Le Pen's economic inspiration is visible in the books stacked on a corner of her desk: mainly French eurosceptic economists and academics including the late Maurice Allais, France's only Nobel prize-winning economist.
Most of the authors are not known to have Front sympathies, and some are emphatically left-wing. But Le Pen has borrowed their ideas all the same.
Jacques Sapir, a leading eurosceptic French economist, has supported a Communist-backed party in previous elections and has no links with or affinities to Le Pen. He said he had heard from friends that she was quoting him and discovered the Front's website carried links to his work.
"She quotes me correctly," he said dryly.
Le Pen's willingness to cross traditional left-right divides prompted the starkest shift in the Front's economic thinking. In Jean-Marie's day, the platform was 'less government', in line with U.S. president Ronald Reagan's Reaganomics. Now the party wants a strong state, a regulated economy.
Sulzer, the man in charge of the Front's economic program, says it wants a state that protects France's internal markets from foreign competition: "We cannot compete with exporting countries that do not respect any social or environmental norms."
The Front also wants to regulate the financial industry and inculcate it with moral values. It favors separating retail and investment banking. Sulzer said Le Pen would have no qualms about nationalizing financial institutions that are in trouble, returning them to the market later. "We do not want to recreate the Soviet Union," he said.
At home, he said, the Front wants freedom of commerce and industry, free competition and no cartels, monopolies or social abuse.
"When the experts say her economic program is inapplicable, there is a fraction of the population, notably in the working classes, who answer 'that may be so, but we have already tried the left and right,'" says political analyst Jean-Yves Camus, one of France's leading specialists on the extreme right.
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
In person, Le Pen is down-to-earth and friendly, but she also exudes determination. The youngest daughter of one of the most reviled men in France, she survived a bomb attack on her home as a child, lived down a mother who left the family and posed half-naked in Playboy magazine, and fought off an older sister to become her father's political heir.
She raises her three children on her own in a hilltop villa in leafy Saint-Cloud, near Paris. With her current partner, Louis Aliot, a top Front official, she likes to go for target practice at a shooting range.
"I think I am more solid in the face of adversity than most of the leaders of our country, most of whom have had an easy ride. It builds a certain shell," she told Reuters.
Le Pen has a knack for speaking about complex things in simple terms, which has made the Front's economic program appealing to ordinary people. A vote for the National Front, once fringe, used to be a protest vote. But this is no longer the case, according to Mergier and Fourquet.
"The vote for the National Front of Marine Le Pen is becoming a vote for, rather than against," they say in "Breaking Point", a study for the left-leaning Fondation Jean Jaures. One in two workers could vote for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the 2012 poll, they find.
Le Pen's political instincts are astute, their study suggests. The working classes do indeed consider the UMP and PS to be cut from the same cloth; the left-right divide is no longer the pertinent fault line in politics. Central now is how the political alternatives differ in their ability to retake power from Europe and from the financial markets.
"That then leaves just two kinds of political alternatives: those who can envision an exit from the political impotence and those who don't," Mergier and Fourquet write. To the working classes, the economic crisis has created a situation that is so painful, complex and intractable that it's like a Gordian knot that needs cutting.
"The voters who see in Marine Le Pen the only politician who is able to make that cut, they do not care about the details of her program. ... They feel she is the one who is able to move beyond everything that has been tried by the parties of the left and the right."
For analyst Camus, the National Front also embodies lost ideological vigor. "To them, political action is an expression of political will. From there on, anything is possible: leaving the European Union, leaving NATO, leaving the World Trade Organization, closing the borders, anything."
ENCOURAGER LES AUTRES
Marine Le Pen's populism is influencing the mainstream parties. Her anti-euro stance lets her gain ground with every squabble and spat in Europe's debt crisis, forcing other parties to look closely at her policies as they work out how to chase the workers' vote.
In the 2007 election, Sarkozy won them over partly by adopting the Front's anti-immigration agenda; his five-year mandate has been marked by constant hammering on such National Front themes as national identity, banning the Muslim burqa and expelling Roma immigrants.
The Front's economic policies are harder to adopt. Most of what Le Pen proposes is anathema for mainstream parties. Sarkozy and his ministers repeat every other day that without the euro there is no Europe.
But Le Pen's new-look National Front is already making an impact. Mainstream party stalwarts are beginning to voice proposals that echo Front ideas.
In a speech timed to coincide with a National Front meeting in September, a member of Sarkozy's UMP called for the reindustrialization of France. "We need to put an end to the illusion that an economy can be built on services only," said former industry minister Christian Estrosi.
Socialist Segolene Royal, currently third behind Francois Hollande and Martine Aubry in polls of Socialist candidates, has called for more protectionism and last month took a swipe at the banking industry that sounded very Marine Le Pen, saying bankers must "obey, not command".
Le Pen's influence could have consequences far outside France. The single currency may be a hot topic now, but Charles Grant, director of the London-based Center for European Reform, believes trade is the area where the Front would have most resonance: "This is where her arguments stand a significant chance of shifting the intellectual climate in France."
Already, the Socialist manifesto promises to "strive to increase import tariffs on products coming from countries that do not respect international norms with regards to social, health and environmental matters".
As well as imitating the National Front, Sarkozy's UMP is trying to tackle it head-on. One of his advisers, Henri Guaino, calls her ideas "as radical as they are disastrous". Where Le Pen asserts that disaster is already here in the form of the euro zone crisis, he replies that people have no idea what a calamity it would be if the euro were to disappear.
"The very people to whom this is presented as a solution are the ones who would be its first victims. The most vulnerable, the most impoverished, the most underprivileged would pay an exorbitant price for such a decision," he said.
Spearheading the UMP's anti-Le Pen drive is Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. The National Front under its new leader has not really changed at all, she argues.
"In France, when the new Beaujolais wine of the season goes on sale, we say 'Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrive.' Well, the new National Front has arrived, but nothing has changed. They have cleaned the facade, but it is the same old shop," she said.
Long-time Front watchers say this is largely, but not entirely, true. The National Front's economic proposals are indeed new, they say; they point to the expulsions of anti-Semitic and overtly racist elements, as well as skinheads and Nazi sympathizers.
With or without hardliners, though, the glue that binds Front members is not economic policy. A deep resentment of foreign immigrants, particularly Muslims, is still obvious, from the party leadership to the rank and file.
In Amneville, two dozen Front members who gathered in the "Auberge des Amis", a cafe by the railway tracks, were not talking about the euro. Over a meal of cold cuts, a history teacher said he was trying to stop his school from offering halal meat. Another militant boasted of his efforts to organize a pork sausage party in a Muslim neighborhood of Paris.
"It is true that there are still many National Front militants who like to talk about problems with immigration and security and the Islam offensive, and rightly so," says Engelmann.
Even though Marine Le Pen attracted him to the National Front, some of its old ideas also appeal to him.
He left his last party after it added a veiled Muslim woman as candidate.
(Additional reporting by Marion Douet in Paris, Sara Webb in Amsterdam and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Edited by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson)