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Here is the big political story of recent months. In parliamentary by-elections, in municipal elections and in opinion polls support for the Front National has been increasing dramatically. Only last month a poll published in the left-wing Nouvel Observateur revealed that in next year's European elections more people intended to vote for the Front National than for any other party. The shock waves are still being felt. The personal popularity of Marine Le Pen is even higher. When, therefore, she announces that she intends to redraw France's political map, she is now taken very seriously.

Ever since its creation in October 1972 the Front National has baffled commentators. No one seems quite able to decide what exactly the party stands for or where it came from. The simplest and most convenient response was to see it as yet another party of the extreme Right and to assume that it too would soon fade from view. Many of its earliest supporters undoubtedly lived up to this image. Under its first leader, Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party faithful were often leftovers from the Vichy regime and the cause of a French Algeria. Many had been followers of the short-lived anti-tax Poujadist movement of the 1950s. 

Yet the party gradually widened its electoral support and even the rabble-rousing Jean-Marie Le Pen moved his party away from some of its more controversial policies. However, keeping the party together was never easy. Internal splits were frequent. 

The Front National also faced united opposition from all the major parties of both the Right and Left in the form of the so-called "republican front". In brief, the Front National was accorded pariah status by its political opponents. The treatment it received from the press and television channels was not much friendlier.

How then can the current popularity of the Front National be explained? Most obviously, by the failure of the governments of both Sarkozy and Hollande, of the Right and the Left, to address issues of long-term concern to a sizeable proportion of the French electorate. It is tempting to reduce these issues to those of unemployment and immigration; but they extend to disenchantment with the European Union, fears for the French economy, high levels of taxation, and the sense that France is on the slide. Opinion poll after opinion poll reveals that the French are pessimistic about their future. Those same polls also disclose a deep and growing distrust of politicians. 

Greater popularity also owes something to the way the Front National now chooses to position itself. In 2011, Marine Le Pen was elected its leader. Since then she has done everything she can to clean up the party's image; for example, skinheads are now banned from attending the party's rallies. She herself is articulate, clever and funny, and, like her father, is an impressive public performer. 

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