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Le Pen: Master of populist soundbite

Le Pen
Le Pen is notorious for once describing the Holocaust as "a detail" of history  

PARIS, France (CNN) -- He's a former paratrooper, and at the age of 73 still talks tough like one -- a charismatic master of the populist soundbite.

In his latest presidential campaign, Jean-Marie Le Pen promised to fight rising crime, unemployment and the immigration he blames for both.

Le Pen also blames job losses on what he calls Euro-globalisation -- Europe's single market, its euro currency and the American-led push for free trade.

He blasts what he calls France's technocratic elite, politicians like conservative Jacques Chirac -- who defeated Le Pen in a record second-round landslide to retain the presidency for another five years.

"As a man of the people, I will always be on the side of those who suffer," Le Pen says. "Because I know the cold, I know poverty. I want to rebuild the coherence of our great people."

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In language like that, some see shades of Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider or American Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who ran for governor of Louisiana.

Though Le Pen rejects accusations he is a racist and anti-Semite, he has been convicted several times for remarks about Jews or the Holocaust.

He was fined in court for his notorious 1987 remark that Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of World War II history."

He shoved a Socialist politician during France's 1997 legislative campaign, after which he was banned from holding public office in France for a year.

But the outcome of this year's first-round presidential vote thoroughly fulfilled Le Pen's dream of going from the eternal "Third Man" in French politics to a real contender.

He confounded the opinion polls once again, shocked the French political establishment to its core and ended the political career of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

In his fourth bid for the French presidency, Le Pen made it to the second-round runoff of a presidential election for the first time.

A key to Le Pen's first-round success was the issue of crime and personal security on French streets.

Its emergence as a top election issue was a gift to the longtime death-penalty supporter, who capitalised on his law-and-order message at a time when more and more French felt prey to violent crime.

Unlike other politicians, Le Pen openly links the issue with immigration -- and insists he speaks for the people in doing so.

He often compares immigration to an invasion, blaming foreigners for rising unemployment and urban violence.

He strikes a chord among voters who fear that waves of Muslim immigrants, mainly from Africa, are displacing French identity -- and the French themselves.

"They know immigration in our country is linked to insecurity and unemployment. So people trust me because I can see the connection," he says. "The main cause of crime is linked very directly to mass immigration."

From paratrooper to politician

Le Pen's history began in the Brittany port of Trinite-sur-Mer as the son of a fisherman.

Born on June 20, 1928, Le Pen is a former paratrooper who fought in Indochina and Algeria.

After law school and the Foreign Legion, he joined a rightist anti-tax party and was elected to parliament. In 1956 he lost an eye in a brawl at a political rally.

He founded the National Front in 1972 and steadily built support with a populist mix of anti-immigrant, pro-employment, law-and-order promises.

He made his first presidential bid in 1974, scoring just 0.74 percent of the vote.

It was in the 1984 European elections when Le Pen began to make his mark, with his party getting 11 percent of the vote.

Legislative elections two years later and the last two French presidential elections confirmed his hold, with the National Front consistently scoring about 15 percent of the vote.

In 1998, a split within the National Front ate away at party support, but Le Pen's populist appeal survived.

As Le Pen puts it, the National Front is socially left, economically right and French first. Its patron saint is Joan of Arc.

"They're French fundamentalists, France above all, a France that never really existed," says author and Le Pen expert Claude Askolovitch.

"If France comes back, well, we'll have jobs and the post office next door, and security, and the teachers will be better off."

Among Le Pen's promises: Stop immigration. Build 200,000 more prison cells. Restore the death penalty. It's a "French-first" policy favouring French citizens for jobs and social benefits.

He wants France to abolish the income tax, scrap the euro and resurrect import duties to protect French jobs.

Le Pen rejects U.S. pre-eminence and visited Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in part to make a point -- that France should pursue its own political and economic interests.

Le Pen toned down some of his rhetoric in this campaign. He previously called for immigrants to be expelled but dropped that message this time.

Although that wasn't enough for him to clinch the presidency, the fact he got this far could boost the National Front in June's parliamentary elections -- meaning the presidential race is hardly Le Pen's last hurrah.

-- CNN's Chris Burns and Robin Oakley contributed to this report.


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