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January 13, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France — as envisioned by far-right leader Marine Le Pen — should be its own master and have no globalization issues, European Union membership or open borders. It would join the United States and Russia in a global battle against Islamic militants. Francs, not euros, would fill the pockets of French citizens. Borders would be so secure that illegal immigration would no longer fuel fears of terror attacks or drain public coffers.

It’s a vision that holds increasing appeal for voters once put off by the image of Le Pen’s anti-immigration party as a sanctuary for racists and anti-Semites. It has made Le Pen a leading candidate in France’s presidential election this spring.

A series of deadly extremist attacks, 10 percent unemployment and frustration with mainstream politics in France have helped make the party she has worked to detoxify a potentially viable alternative.

Early polls place her as one of the top two contenders. The other is former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a conservative who would slash the ranks of civil servants and trim state-funded health care — an untouchable area for Le Pen, whose campaign slogan is “In the Name of the People.”

Le Pen believes her chance of victory has been bolstered by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and by Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential victory. She speaks with confidence of winning, saying “I will” change France.

“This page in the history of the world is turning. We will give back to nations reasoned protectionism, economic and cultural patriotism,” she said. On Thursday, Le Pen showed up at Trump Tower in New York and was seen sipping coffee in a basement coffee shop, leading to speculation she was looking to create a bond with the U.S. president-elect. However, no such meeting was on his agenda.

Trump Tower resident George Lombardi, who said he’s been friends with Le Pen for over 20 years and is a friend of Trump’s, said the French politician attended a private gathering on Wednesday evening at his residence.

She was joined by entrepreneurs, industrialists and diplomats — people she might be able to raise money from and “that have the possibility to help her with the campaign in France,” Lombardi said. “We did not reach out to the Trump campaign. We did not reach out to Mr. Trump,” he said. “We did not go begging for any interview with anybody on the transition team because she was here to meet other people.”

Like Trump, Le Pen, 48, a mother of three and lawyer by training, envisions improved relations with Russia, which she and other National Front officials have visited. But she takes it further. “I want an alliance to emerge between France, the United States and Russia to fight Islamic fundamentalism, because it’s a gigantic danger weighing on our democracies,” she said last week.

For Le Pen and her supporters, “massive migration,” notably from Muslim North Africa, is supplanting French civilization and is at the root of many France’s modern woes. “On est chez nous” (“We’re in our land”) is a mantra at National Front rallies.

Le Pen insists she has no problem with followers of Islam, but wants people who espouse radical political ideas in the guise of religion to be put on trial and expelled before they install Sharia, or Islamic law, in France.

Traditional Muslim dress, which many in France consider a gateway to radicalization, could disappear from public view should Le Pen win the presidency. The National Front’s No. 2, Florian Philippot, says Le Pen’s platform calls for extending a 2004 law banning “ostensible” religious symbols like Muslim headscarves from French classrooms to include the streets.

Le Pen took over leadership of the National Front in 2011 from her father, party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her make-over included sidelining him. His party membership was revoked last year after he repeated an anti-Semitic reference that had drawn a court conviction.

But the slogan “French First” — coined by the elder Le Pen in 1985 — remains alive under Marine Le Pen. Newcomers to France would have to spend several years paying a stipend before availing themselves of free school and health care, Le Pen has said, benefits she considers a draw for immigrants.

Nonna Mayer, a leading expert on the party, said Le Pen has “gone half-way in changing the party,” ridding it of its long-time anti-Semitic image but making Islam the enemy. “At the heart of the party of Marine Le Pen … there is something which is not really compatible with the values of democracy,” she said. “It’s the idea that one must keep housing, social benefits, family stipends, employment to the French.”

Le Pen emphatically rejects the label of extremist, proudly calling herself “a patriot.” The words “democracy” and “democratic” roll off her tongue. Yet her entourage includes one-time members of an extreme-right movement once noted for its violence. A former leader of the hard-core Identity Bloc in Nice, Philippe Vardon, joined National Front ranks and quickly won a councilor spot.

Under Le Pen, the National Front was France’s big winner in 2014 European Parliament election, taking more seats than any other French party. But she wants to do away with the 28-nation EU, which she claims has stolen national sovereignty, and ditch the euro currency, which she describes as a “knife in the ribs” of nations, ruining economies.

Her EU exit formula is “very simple:” Try immediately to negotiate a return of borders, national currency and “economic patriotism” to protect French jobs and industry and allow the French to pass laws unadulterated by directives from Brussels.

Six months later, she would call a referendum and counsel remaining in a “new Europe” if negotiations are fruitful, or advise bailing out as Britain has done. “My program cannot be put into place if we remain subjugated by European diktats,” she said. “I see the grand return of nationalism.”

Le Pen is expected to present her full presidential agenda during a Feb. 4-5 convention. But she set the tone with her New Year’s greeting, a “wish of combat” to defeat political adversaries that she contends represent the interests of banks, finance and the media.

Jill Colvin in New York contributed.

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