As the French decide on 24 April whether to re-elect centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron, opinion polls seem to suggest that his far-right contender Marine Le Pen from the National Rally party may be a lot closer to evicting him than anyone had previously thought.
The elections have also gripped the interest of the Nato and the European Union, in part because Ms Le Pen is largely seen as a longtime admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose forces have currently invaded Ukraine.
While earlier forecasts projected a comfortable win for Mr Macron in his re-election bid, Ms Le Pen has been narrowing this lead in recent weeks. According to projections by polling firm Ipsos, while Mr Macron topped the first round of voting by securing 28.1 per cent support, Ms Le Pen is predicted to have secured a close second with 23.3 per cent votes, reported the Economist.
Contrast this with her 2017 run for the country’s top post, which she lost to Mr Macron by 66 per cent to 34 per cent.
Her improved election chances are also largely attributed to her softening of her image despite still pursuing policies targeting Muslims and foreign immigrants.
For instance, Ms Le Pen, who had earlier vowed to issue fines to Muslims wearing headscarves in public, posed for a selfie with a smiling teenager donning a hijab. When she was attacked by her far-right rival Eric Zemmour for “going soft”, she shot back saying: “Let me teach you about humanity.”
“What would you have done? Pulled her veil off her and mistreated her? she was quoted as saying by the Guardian.
The 53 year-old leader, who has also been attempting to tap into the day-to-day grievances of average voters facing rising fuel, food and energy prices, said that the election outcome will shape France for not only the five-year term but also “probably the next 50 years”.
A law graduate from Pantheon-Assas University, the 53-year-old politician born to former party leader Mean-Marie Le Pen, wants to implement a “Buy French” policy for public tenders, as she aims to turn her father’s free-market , small-government party into a big-spending, protectionist one.
If elected to power, she has proposed to reduce the retirement age to 60 for those who started working under the age of 20. She also aims to scrap income tax for those under 30 and cut Vat on energy from 20 per cent to 5.5 per cent , reported Reuters.
Ms Le Pen has also proposed spending two billion euros over the span of next five years, raising the salary of health workers, and recruiting another 10,000.
She had also pledged to cut contributions to the European Union coffers, putting Paris on a collision course with the European Commissions and other EU members. Ms Le Pen has insisted that French law prevails over the EU rules and would employ thousands more customs agents to check goods entering France, including those from other EU countries, to fight fraud.
The National Rally party leader has also put forth her desire to pull the country out of Nato’s integrated command as she attempt to challenge the West’s post-Cold War security architecture.
With her party receiving a bank loan from a Russian bank in 2014 and Ms Le Pen being hosted by Mr Putin at the Kremlin ahead of the 2017 presidential election, the presidential hopeful has been accused by her opponents of being too close to Moscow.
However, in an interview with the Reuters, Ms Le Pen called herself a “Gaullist” after wartime leader Charles de Gaulle, adding that she would pursue a foreign policy maintaining equal distance from both the US and Russia.
In a message to Britain and the US, she urged the leaders to “drop the preconceived ideas” they have about her.
Additional reporting from the wires