PARIS -- Nationalism has been sweeping Europe over the last decade or so, with countries from the U.K. to Hungary now led by flag-waving leaders. France could be next.
Marine Le Pen, a far-right French politician, is tipped to run incumbent Emmanuel Macron close in next spring's presidential election. Macron's popularity will depend on his government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Le Pen is seeking to woo voters by focusing on public safety issues.
"The health crisis has highlighted all the failures of Emmanuel Macron," the leader of the National Rally party told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview. "The French have a feeling of social downgrading, of growing insecurity," adding that "these situations make French people conscious that president Macron is the president of chaos."
In a recent Le Monde poll, Le Pen is neck-and-neck with Macron in terms of voting intention in the first round of the two-stage election. But in a second round runoff, Le Pen scored 43% versus the incumbent's 57%, indicating that she has her work cut out to become the republic's next leader.
Macron, once a centrist that straddled France's traditional divide, has tilted to the right in recent years. He has pushed forward legislation on security and Islamist fundamentalism, and made law and order a priority.
The National Rally is trying to detoxify its image. The party changed its name from the National Front, dismissed scandal-hit politicians and is toning down its positions: "We must change the European Union from within," she said, a switch in stance from seeking to leave the bloc.
Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was leader of the National Front from 1972 to 2011 and known for unashamed Islamophobia and Holocaust denial. After succeeding him, she expelled him from the party in 2015 after he once again openly expressed racist views.
"My position is, not extreme, but extremely reasonable," she said. "Emmanuel Macron is the leader of globalists and I am the leader of the national(ist)s."
If elected, Le Pen said her France would continue to stand up against China's growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. "The opportunity for France is to demonstrate that we have the power to be an element of pacification."
Asked about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, she said: "We must demand respect for human rights for everyone, including the Uighurs," but added that sanctions would not be a good idea. "I do not believe in threats, I do not believe in moral lessons."
Nonetheless, the main concerns of the party remain immigration, the fight against globalization and the conservation of cultural homogeneity. She remains a fierce objector to the EU, and is mistrustful of NATO. "Russia is not a danger that justifies the mobilization of such a structure."
"As it is, France must leave the integrated command of NATO," she said, adding that she would agree "if NATO says it wants to reorient itself against Islamic terrorism," which she said is "unquestionably the global danger."