Marine Le Pen sees plots everywhere. In her view the media, the Socialists, the judiciary and even the European Union have been conniving in recent months to enfeeble her presidential campaign. As she said during last week's televised debate, 'I'm politically persecuted'. But the plot with the potential to cause the greatest damage to the National Front leader is likely to come from within.
It will be led by her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, and her growing number of supporters within the National Front who believe Marine Le Pen's detoxification of the party she inherited from her father in 2011 has softened their core beliefs to an unacceptable degree. Jean-Marie Le Pen was a far-right firebrand, and many within the party yearn for a return to those days; for a strong, uncompromising leader who knew his territory and never strayed from it.
Not like his daughter. In recent years she has shifted to the left on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, while also chasing the gay vote and, unforgivably, in the eyes of many National Front supporters, stating her belief that Islam is compatible with French values. This is part of the strategy formulated by her deputy, the 35-year-old intellectual Florian Philippot, who, inspired by Brexit and the US election, believes the best chance the National Front have of winning the election is to turn it into a struggle between nationalism and globalism, the latter represented by Francois Fillon and Emmanuel Macron.
Last month, when Marine Le Pen appeared on a radio phone-in show, a man called to say he had been a National Front councillor a decade ago but he wouldn't vote for the party in the presidential election because it had become too liberal under its self-obsessed leader. Such declarations will embolden Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, and alarm Marine, who knows that her political future is at stake in this election.
The opportunity for electoral success for the National Front has never been greater; the traditional left and right parties are in disarray, Islamic terrorism is rarely off the front pages and immigration is a burning issue. If Le Pen doesn't reach the second round it will be nothing other than a humiliating failure, and yet in recent weeks instead of increasing her lead in the polls she has dropped a couple of percent.
In contrast, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who likes to think of himself as a Gallic Hugo Chávez, has seen his approval ratings soar as disenchanted Socialist supporters abandon the bland Benoît Hamon. The 65-year-old Mélenchon is a polished performer, who has harnessed his charisma and confidence astutely during the presidential campaign, winning a new generation of supporters via social media.
That couldn't be more different from Marine Le Pen, who neither looks nor acts the part. In a country where style matters, the 48-year-old has a clumpy gait and rounded-shoulders. There's even, dare one say it, a touch of the Angela Merkel about her appearance. She is neither a confident orator nor a good listener, going through the gamut of facial expressions during interviews. She huffs and she puffs, sighs and smirks, and generally behaves in a way unbecoming of one seeking the country's highest office. In short, when Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen are in the same room it feels like one is watching a West End Star sharing a stage with an Am Dram player.
Cue Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is increasingly seen by the left as more dangerous than her aunt. For a start, the devout Catholic's ideology is far more socially conservative than Marine Le Pen's but it's the image of Maréchal-Le Pen that most troubles her political opponents. Young, intelligent and engaging, she's come a long way since 2010 when in a live interview she broke down and wept under the strain. Her unauthorised biographer, Michel Henry, whose book was published earlier this year, describes her as 'a phenomenon...whose charisma and star attitude are enthusiastically received in the street'. Marion is slicker and sleeker than Marine. She rarely gets ruffled in the way her aunt does, avoiding the awkward questions with a smile and a swift change of direction. So she comes across as more conciliatory than Le Pen while pushing views that are more uncompromising, such as her belief that gay marriage 'could open the door to polygamy' and that the Constitution should be reformed in order to protect and promote Christian traditions.
There's also her age. A recent poll revealed that the demographic most in tune with the National Front's ideology is the 18-30 age group; Maréchal-Le Pen is 27. So she's one of them, she shares their disappointments and their fears, but she can also reassure them that together they can make France great again. It's her youth which is being used by Marine Le Pen in an attempt to contain her niece. Asked in a recent interview if Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of only two National Front MPs, would be a member of the government in the event she is elected president, Le Pen said she 'probably' lacked the experience for a government post, adding: 'She is young, and she is quite inflexible...a little like the French youth'. One French newspaper claimed Maréchal-Le Pen found the accusation of inexperience 'disgusting'.
Marine Le Pen has enjoyed mocking Emmanuel Macron during the presidential campaign for his claim that his En Marche! party is 'neither left, nor right', but the same could be said of the strategy pursued by Le Pen and Philippot. The pair have gambled on fighting the election as a struggle between nationalism and globalisation but Maréchal-Le Pen believes this is a mistake. 'She subscribes to the good old left/right divide', says Joël Gombin, a professor at SciencesPo and a specialist in the National Front. 'The National Front leadership went with the Philippot strategy but depending on the results of the election that could all be called into question'.
There were claims last week in the French press that Maréchal-Le Pen could soon abandon politics for a quieter life, suggestions that she subsequently laughed off. Many suspect she leaked the rumours to the media as the first part of her plot to challenge her aunt. In effect Marion is asking the rank and file to decide what they want: her vision for the National Front, or her aunt's.