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She's an energetic blonde woman with a down-to-earth demeanour. You could imagine exchanging pleasantries with her at the supermarket. But she's one of France's most important public figures, and, at a time when the two mainstream parties are both in disarray, the only political leader with realistic hopes for a bright future.

Marine Le Pen, leaders of the far-right National Front, was the overall winner of the recent European elections in France. Her party will be the main French representative at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The National Front won 25 per cent of the vote, surging ahead of the governing socialists (14 per cent) and the centre-right UMP (20 per cent).

The UMP has been unable to capitalize on the abyssal unpopularity of President François Hollande. UMP Leader Jean-François Copé has just agreed to resign, embroiled in allegations of irregular campaign financing.

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This is the window of opportunity Ms. Le Pen has been counting on. On the night of the 2012 presidential election, where she received surprisingly high 18-per-cent support, she vowed that the National Front would eventually replace the UMP as the party of the right. In April's municipal elections, the UMP got the largest share of the vote, but the National Front gained ground. It now holds the mayorships of 14 cities in its two bastions of the North (the region most severely hit by industrial decline) and the Mediterranean area (where xenophobic currents are especially strong).

Almost single-handedly, Ms. Le Pen has changed the image of her party, which was marginal and disgraced under the erratic leadership of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She worked hard to bring the party into the mainstream and erase its anti-Semitic overtones.

The National Front's program is a mixture of far-left (Ms. Le Pen has criticized capitalism and globalization) and far-right themes (it's anti-immigration, and wants France to withdraw from Europe and the euro zone). The FN has replaced the Communist Party as the first party of blue-collar workers, and the traditional right as the champion of small businesspeople and shopkeepers. Ms. Le Pen has added her own touch by covering her Islamophobic positions under politically correct references to France's grand tradition of secularism.

The leader's own image has played a huge role in the repositioning of the party.

At 45, she projects a thoroughly modern image, a sharp contrast with Jean-Marie Le Pen's old-style rants. A divorced mother of two, she lives with Louis Aliot, an FN official and newly elected deputy to the European Parliament. Last year, she refused to join the movement against gay marriage that mobilized part of the right. She is incredibly telegenic and her populist style makes her appear close to the people – contrary to the stiff, elitist political class that still governs most of France.

The party's literature presents her as a modern-day Jeanne d'Arc, the heroine who helped to boot the "English enemy" out of France in the 15th century – the subtext being that Muslims and Roma are the new invaders and Ms. Le Pen will return France to its "white" roots.

It's doubtful that Ms. Le Pen will ever become president, but the "Marine wave," as the French call it, is clearly going to be a force to reckon with.

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