PARIS- For a far-right challenger whose past presidential campaigns have centred on pugnacious anti-immigration, eurosceptic rhetoric, Marine Le Pen has a new message for voters and it is working: I'll put money back in your pockets.

Le Pen has tapped into discontent over the rising cost of living as inflation hits multi-year highs after Russia invaded. Her climb in opinion polls less than a fortnight ahead of the vote is causing unease in President Emmanuel Macron's camp.

Le Pen was viewed by some political observers as finished after her thumping defeat to Macron in 2017's runoff vote, but has softened her image since then, ditching unpopular plans to drop the euro, tweeting about her passion for cats, and on one occasion taking selfies with a veiled Muslim girl.

While migration and security remain central to her manifesto, a Reuters analysis shows mentions of "purchasing power" in her tweets have sharply increased since early 2022, displacing "immigration" to which she now makes far fewer references on the social media platform.

A Le Pen victory had long been dismissed as impossible, with Macron and others counting on what is known in France as the "republican front", whereby voters vote en masse for whichever candidate opposes the far right in the runoff.

But her focus on surging prices, has helped her shrug off past connections with Russia's Vladimir Putin, who received her at the Kremlin before the previous campaign.

And although polls showed Macron received a boost in voting intentions after Russia waged war on its neighbour, he is now falling back just as Le Pen gains ground. Some aides are worried he has been too absent from the debate as he focused on Ukraine and that his campaign lacked "magic".

Le Pen has cemented her position as Macron's lead challenger. An IFOP survey this week projected a second round result of 53%-47% in Macron's favour, the narrowest margin yet forecast by the pollster. In 2017, Macron defeated her with 66%.

"I'm like the phoenix rising from the ashes," Le Pen told Reuters at her campaign headquarters, where visitors sit waiting on cushions with the slogan "keep calm and vote Marine".

One cabinet minister told Reuters he thought a Le Pen victory was no longer unthinkable: "A democratic accident is possible this time," the minister said, requesting anonymity.

"We shouldn't underestimate her," a source close to Macron said. "A second round against her will be much more complicated. I can already see the tickers on TV saying: 'what if it were her?'."

 

'CAT LADY'

Macron's ministers have started to warn voters off Le Pen more stridently as she looks set to reach her second runoff in her third campaign. Before 2017, the only time a far-right candidate reached the second round was in 2002, when her father Jean-Marie Le Pen lost to Jacques Chirac.

"Let's not be fooled by Mrs Le Pen. She's the heiress of the most radical party and we're now told she's become a friendly cat lady? That's a lie!" Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said at a campaign event in Normandy last weekend.

Pollsters predict record-low turnout, which may help Le Pen. Many left-wing voters in particular resent what they see as a shift to the right by Macron since 2017 and plan to abstain, pollsters say. His proposal to push the retirement age to 65 in particular has hit him in the polls, some Macron aides admit.

The decision by far-right TV show star Eric Zemmour, who has made a name for himself with inflammatory anti-immigrant comments, to run in the election, has also played into Le Pen's strategy to appear more mainstream.

"Something quite amazing happened during this campaign. The radicality of Eric Zemmour has softened the image of Marine Le Pen," Bruno Cautres, a political scientist at Sciences-Po university in Paris, told Reuters.

"She's less radical to many voters, she looks less aggressive than Eric Zemmour, she's got more respectability. And she has learnt from the past elections," he said.

In her interview with Reuters, Le Pen presented herself as "neither of the left nor the right", in an ironic echo of Macron's own positioning in the 2017 campaign, during which he promised to transcend the traditional left-right divide.

"You can't put me in a box," she said. "I'm neither left nor right. In my manifesto, you have the nationalisation of motorways and the privatisation of public broadcasting, so a left-wing measure and a right-wing measure."

Asked if ratings agencies could take a stern view of her proposals, she said the 68 billion euros ($75.78 billion) she would spend on measures such as income tax exemptions for the under 30s and cutting VAT on petrol to 5.5% from 20%, were offset by savings, including removing benefits from non-French citizens.

For its part, Macron's government has put together a package of measures worth 25 billion euros ($27 billion) to soften the pain of high energy prices and inflation.

Le Pen dismissed suggestions her election could unleash protests or even violence. "A lot of French people have changed in the way they see my project and myself," she said. ($1 = 0.8973 euros)

(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas and Michaela Cabrera; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Alison Williams)