The next 10 days will decide Marine Le Pen’s destiny. For her, this is the culmination of a lifelong dream of reaching the top of French politics: The presidency.
Or at least that is what she believes.
France is suffering from high unemployment, a stagnant economy, security fears, and the country remains bitterly divided as the government struggles to cope with immigration and integration.
It is this fertile ground of disenchantment with the political class and a desire for change upon which Le Pen has built her campaign.
And yet, as election day draws closer, it is evident that she and those around her are becoming ever more tense.
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Poor polling, growing pressure
On Tuesday, at a televised debate in which I was invited to be part of panel questioning Le Pen, the pressure that is mounting on one of France’s most divisive figures became clear.
Perhaps it’s the nature of the campaign, the constant public appearances, the hundreds of interviews she’s given, or the thousands of hands she has shaken on a near-daily basis.
Or perhaps it’s the polls – a series of predictions which suggest she is languishing at least 20 points behind her rival, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
What is obvious is that her campaign is feeling the heat – which is increasing each and every day.
There were a flurry of phone calls between her team and French television company TF1 to discuss the logistics of the panel.
It seemed that my presence on the panel had caused concern: I was told that Le Pen’s team, fearing a trap, were particularly wary of the participation of a representative of the international media.
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‘Adrenaline and no dinners’
The premise of the program was to take the two finalists, in separate episodes, and to imagine what they would be like in power.
It was important for Le Pen to avoid the trap of appearing like a populist candidate, with aggressive attacks on the press.
The point for her was to rise above that image and instead appear “presidential.”
In the make-up room we shared at the TV studio, she was all smiles and charm; we made small talk.
I asked her how she was coping with what must be the most punishing of schedules.
“Adrenaline” she said. “And no dinners.”
We spoke about our children – we each have three – and her desire to protect hers from the media.
She told me about her vigilance in ensuring they remained free of the press attention which had besieged her at such a young age, as the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Outside the make-up room as we waited to go on set, her team were drinking champagne while eying me with more than a hint of suspicion.
Once the cameras were rolling, though, Le Pen appeared focused, confident, ready.
But it was also there that she also showcased her uncanny ability never to actually answer a question. Le Pen rambles. It means journalists are forced to interrupt her to get a word in.
These techniques, combined with what was apparently a determined effort to seem gracious and cheerful were very effective.
Even when answering my questions, she refrained from going on the attack, answering with a smile instead.
Read more: France urged to reject Le Pen in presidential vote
Party’s anti-Semitic history
Le Pen, supremely confident, has never been one to shy away from a fight.
This is a woman who has spent much of her life living as part of France’s most despised families.
She was just eight years old when a bomb ripped through her parents’ Parisian home in a suspected assassination attempt on her father.
Growing up in the public eye, surrounded by security, Le Pen’s whole life has been a battle to simply be who she is.
But just who that is remains open to question – particularly as she has sought to move the National Front away from the Holocaust denial rhetoric of her father.
Jean-Marie Le Pen made it through to the Presidential runoff election in 2002 presidential election before being crushed by opponent Jacques Chirac.
But he was suspended from the party he founded – expelled by his own daughter – over his comments that the Holocaust was a “detail” of history.
The pair had a very public falling out, as Le Pen sought to take the party in a different direction, away from the anti-Semitism of the past.
The mask has slipped on occasion, though. Last month she suggested France was not responsible for the wartime round-up of 13,000 Jews who were later sent to Nazi death camps.
Her stance put her firmly at odds with former president Jacques Chirac and current premier Francois Hollande, who have both apologized for the role played by French police in the rounding up of Jews at the Vel d’Hiv cycling track in Paris in July 1942.
It was a slip which allowed her rivals to gleefully remind the public of the National Front’s hateful past – a past Le Pen had attempted to consign to history, but which still lurks just beneath the surface.
Head to head: How Le Pen and Macron compare
Life played out in public
Such a rush to condemn her will have come as little surprise to Le Pen – her life has been played out in public, from childhood to becoming the country’s most divisive political figure.
But much about her remains a mystery.
The first time I interviewed her, last October, I was made to wait in her office. The whole place was plastered with pictures of cats – it turns out they’re her passion.
There were photos of her children too. While waiting, I wondered if she ever discussed her political battles with them. Or perhaps they stick to talking about work or her everyday life – something which remains a mystery to most.
I suspect one of the reasons she is so private is that there is a big difference between the public Marine Le Pen, who is familiar to most, and the woman behind the facade.
By the time she came in for that interview, we had rearranged much of her office to get the cameras in the right positions and the shot as we wanted it.
She was very relaxed, amiable from start to finish. Her message at the time was that the victory of Donald Trump would be a precursor to her own triumph.
She thought the populist wave would sweep her into the Élysée Palace. It appears such hopes may have been overly optimistic.
Most commentators agree that she has run a fairly lackluster campaign, citing her failure to widen her appeal beyond her natural electorate.
Read more: Who is Marine Le Pen?
The fight of her life
Perhaps that was the catalyst for her decision to temporarily stand down as leader of her party.
It’s a clever move, not only because it allows her to distance herself from a brand that will always find it difficult to be accepted by part of the electorate, but also because it recasts the second round as a battle between two independent candidates.
The move will remind voters that Macron too once had a party – and if he can call himself an independent, then why can’t she?
At our most recent meeting, I asked her, now that she knew she was facing Macron, what she thought of him.
“We know,” I put to her, “all that you don’t like about him, but is there anything that you do admire?”
“Nothing,” she replied. “Nothing at all.” From there she laid into him again.
I asked her what happened if she lost. Would she accept defeat? What would she do afterward?
I suggested that one of the key lessons of the campaign was that French voters have had enough of career politicians who have dominated the political scene for decades.
There was, beyond the possibility of corruption, the certainty of disconnection with normal people who have ordinary jobs.
Read more: France’s new president faces daunting to-do list
She insisted she would not give up. Hers was, she said, the battle of an entire lifetime. It was her mission.
So, although she pretends to be an ordinary politician, she is far removed from such a definition.
She sees herself as a warrior – fighting a battle that was started by her father. And now she’s here to finish the job.
CNN’s James Masters contributed to this story.