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France's Le Pen strives to further detoxify her image, as election jitters hit markets

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By Reuters

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Ingrid Melander

PARIS -French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has narrowed the gap with Emmanuel Macron in opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s presidential election enough to rattle financial markets, stressed on Tuesday how “reasonable” she is, as she seeks to further detoxify her image.

Le Pen, whom Macron easily beat with two-thirds of the vote five years ago, has got so close that who will win in a likely run-off on April 24 is now within the margin of error, one opinion poll showed on Monday.

Since her resounding 2017 defeat, Le Pen has patiently worked on softening her image, striving to appear as a potential leader rather than a radical anti-system opponent.

Polls show this has worked with a growing number of voters, with one survey saying the once vilified candidate has become the second most-liked politician in the country, something long thought impossible in France.

“I always try to have the most reasonable view possible, and one that defends the interest of France,” Le Pen said in an interview with France Inter radio early on Tuesday, spelling out her views on topics ranging from foreign policy to climate change.

France’s benchmark CAC-40 index abruptly lost ground on Tuesday, with traders citing election nerves, while the spread between French and German 10-year government bonds stood at its widest in two years.

Le Pen has continued to improve on her pre-first round polling, at 23% vs Macron’s 27%, with Macron seen only six points ahead of her in the second round, a poll by OpinionWay and Kéa Partners for the Les Echos daily and Radio Classique showed.

The poll also showed 59% of those surveyed expected Macron to win a second mandate – which opinion polls all still point to as the most likely scenario.

Meanwhile, shares in transport infrastructure companies Vinci and Eiffage also underperformed, with traders citing concerns over Le Pen’s proposals for nationalising tollroads.

“Markets woke up on Le Pen”, commented Jerome Legras, head of research at Axiom Alternative Investments.

ANTI-IMMIGRATION

Le Pen started her campaign early, with mostly small-scale meetings in small towns, at a time when voters say they want candidates to be close to them.

She pointed the finger on Tuesday at what has increasingly worried some of Macron’s aides – his late start to a rather lacklustre campaign which even supporters at his only major pre-first round rally said was underwhelming.

“I have been campaigning seriously, I’ve been in the field for six months … others chose not to campaign, including the president of the Republic,” Le Pen said.

For sure, Le Pen, who has taken great pains over recent months to stress her love of cats more than her anti-immigration views, has not changed the core of her far-right party’s programme.

She would end a number of welfare benefits for foreigners, stop family reunification, give preference to the French for jobs and social housing, ban the hijab in public spaces and kick unemployed foreigners out of France.

She defended those views on Tuesday.

“Being French should give you more rights than being a foreigner,” she said.

But this is not what she has focused on in a campaign pegged on purchasing power, which has struck a chord with a number of voters.

The emergence of Eric Zemmour, who is even further to the right than Le Pen, and very outspoken about his inflammatory anti-immigrant ideas, has helped her by contrast to soften her image and appear more palatable to voters.