AP Interview: Le Pen defends anti-Islam fight

She calls herself the "voice of the people," the anti-system candidate who will ensure social justice for the have-nots and purify a France she says is losing its voice to Europe and threatened by massive immigration and rampant Islamization.

The message of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has seduced thousands, kept her consistently in third place in polls and clearly scared President Nicolas Sarkozy as he seeks a second term.

The conservative Sarkozy is trying to woo those who would vote for Le Pen in Sunday's first round of balloting to bridge the gap with frontrunner Francois Hollande, a Socialist whom all polls show will win the election in the May 6 final round.

In an interview Wednesday on BFM-TV, Sarkozy named her directly, asking, "The vote for Marine Le Pen serves whom? Francois Hollande."

Le Pen says Sarkozy is a has-been. "Nicolas Sarkozy has lost. He won't be re-elected," she said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.

Le Pen has almost seamlessly taken the helm of the extreme-right National Front party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, its standard-bearer, and given it another, softer face.

As part of the process dubbed "un-demonizing," the 43-year-old mother of three promotes women and workers and even comes down on the side of animal rights. Above all, she vociferously condemns anti-Semitism, which got her father court convictions.

But like her father, she is combative, and she calls rival candidates her "adversaries."

Yet, the basics have not changed. Marine Le Pen, putting the accent on patriotism, deplores what she says is France's loss of sovereignty to the European Union and to globalization, the nation's perceived loss of identity and what she claims are real dangers hidden within France's Muslim community, which at 5 million is the largest in western Europe.

Le Pen wants France, and other euro zone nations, to give up the euro currency. She wants to drastically reduce the number of immigrants — to 10,000 a year — and, a top theme, to crack down for good on what she claims is the growing footprint of Islamic fundamentalists in France.

"They are advancing in the neighborhoods. They are putting pressure on the population. They are recruiting young boys" to train for jihad, she said.

Le Pen insisted that fighting so-called Islamization won't breed a mass killer such as Anders Behring Breivik, the anti-Muslim extremist who is now on trial in Norway after confessing to killing 77 people.

The fight must not stop "out of fear of a crazy man," she said.

Le Pen cites as proof of the Islamist threat in France the case of Mohamed Merah, a young Frenchman of Algerian origin who last month killed three French paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren before he was shot dead by police trying to capture him.

She predicts the euro zone, struggling with a financial crisis, will ultimately break up, so she wants a "concerted, well reflected exit" with other European countries.

She also refuses to be categorized as extreme right, saying that her party is populist.

The image Marine Le Pen projects is less linked to the extreme-right than that of her father, said Nonna Meyer, an expert on the extreme-right vote at the prestigious university Sciences Po.

"She's younger, she's a woman, she condemns anti-Semitism. She often says things differently than her father," Meyer said. "She says she is tolerant, it is Islam that is intolerant ... She upends the discourse.

"But the foundation of the program is the same," she said. "If you look at the values her party defends, it is a system at once authoritarian and rejecting of others, rejecting the difference."

At a rally Tuesday night in Paris, Marine Le Pen enthralled a crowd of some 6,000. She focused on "the invisible, the forgotten ... those who are always last" and can be protected only by the "nation-state."

"I don't defend the workers of the world. I defend French workers," she said to stomps and cheers.

"No, we are not xenophobes. We are passionately francophile," she said.

In the interview with AP, Le Pen said the "real line of fracture" between the National Front and the system is not left-right but with forces who support globalization and Europeanization.

Meyer said that it is impossible at this point to predict how Le Pen will fare in Sunday's balloting because there are too many unknowns, including the level of voter turnout.

"I think there really is no chance that Marine Le Pen will be in the second round," she added.

This is Marine Le Pen's first time as a presidential candidate, but no one forgets her father's 2002 bid when he faced off then-President Jacques Chirac in the final round, ultimately defeated by a rare union of left and right.

Le Pen predicts a potential first-round surprise because, she says, polls cannot measure to what extent her ideas have taken hold and may show up in the ballot box. She says she'll consider it a victory if she matches her father's first round score of nearly 16.8 percent of the vote in 2002.

The presidential election is far from her last power bid. Like other party leaders, she is eyeing June legislative elections and thinking about joining with other forces — patriots on the left or right — in an alliance whose name would play on her own, the Blue Marine Rally.

Le Pen says she is a reluctant candidate, but one with "very strong convictions."

"It's a great personal sacrifice," she said, "a pleasure, no. A duty, yes."

Were a ministry ever offered her, she said she would refuse it.

"I will not enter the system," she said. The system dictates that "to be against immigration is to be racist."