The election of Marine Le Pen as leader of the far-Right Front National could mark a watershed moment for French politics, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
It's a measure of the inroads Marine Le Pen has already made in the French political debate that she now splits opinion among the rarefied world of Parisian intellectuals.
On the one hand, the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy still thinks she reeks of sulphur: according to him, the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, 82, the longstanding Front National leader, is "even more dangerous than her father".
Yet on the other Elisabeth Lévy, the shrewd editor of Causeur magazine, the French answer to The Spectator, considers not only that Marine Le Pen "says nothing scandalous or morally unacceptable", but also that she might well "be truly breaking away from the old French extreme-Right, to create something new."
Sunday marks an extraordinary moment for Marine Le Pen, and a potentially pivotal moment for the politics of France.
On Sunday afternoon at a party conference in Tours she will be formally declared the comfortable winner of a postal ballot to elect a new leader of the Front National, the party created by her father and reviled for decades even among some of the most conservative of the French.
He is bowing out and giving way to his daughter, a twice-divorced single mother with an infectious laugh and a no-nonsense manner mitigated by charm, who represents a younger, more open-minded and more politically fleet of foot generation - and thus a far greater challenge to France's two main and traditional parties.
"I've taken risks to draw the Front National out of its old rut," she says. "I could have tried to pander to all the small groups who wanted no change at all. Instead, I have made my case that I was a secular republican and a democrat. Over 90 per cent of our members are with me."
Even though she kept to a gruelling schedule, criss-crossing France 51 times in the past few months to campaign for the leadership, she is in fine shape and cracking good humour. She favours tailored jeans which she wears with high-heeled boots, silk shirts and strict blazers, and told Paris Match she follows the high-protein Dukan diet.
Now the FN's undisputed leader, she has her sights firmly on the 2012 presidential election, in which she could prove as dangerous for Nicolas Sarkozy as her father was for the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, in 2002: she firmly believes she can come in second, and slug it out in the runoff with whoever gets finally picked by the Socialist Party.
"Nicolas Sarkozy took many right-wing voters for a ride," she says. "He stole our slogans on security and order, promised a lot and delivered little. We won't be taken in twice."
Yet the latest polls show that her anti-globalisation, anti-Europe and anti-capitalist speeches make more inroads in the Left-wing electorate that on the Right.
It was in 1972 that her father created the Front National out of several even smaller right-wing factions, but the first-past-the-post system ensured that it remained outside parliamentary politics for its first 12 years.
Then came the first European elections of 1984, and a decision by the embattled Socialist president, François Mitterrand, to revert to the system of proportional representation that General de Gaulle had previously repudiated.
That year, when Ms Le Pen was just 15, the Front National celebrated the election of 10 MEPs - and two years later, with a similar electoral system introduced in national elections, 35 Front députés were elected. That split the Right enough to help keep the Socialists in power - and gave the party a new legitimacy.
It was a wily manoeuvre by Mitterrand: no alliances were possible on the Right with the toxic Front, seen, not entirely without reason, as a motley alliance of Vichy nostalgics, football hooligans, Algérie française colonial carryovers, and dyed-in-the-surplice Traditionalist Catholics. Yet without their number, the Right could not attain a majority.
Since then, PR has been again excised from the electoral system, but the Front National has never returned to complete obscurity.
It is difficult to overstate the weight of France's historical past in her present political life. The scars left by the French Revolution, the great original sin of the Occupation, and the bitter Algerian war of decolonisation still fester, just under the surface of almost any debate.
Le Pen, an orphaned Breton fisherman's son, tried to join the Résistance in 1944, and later fought in Algeria and in the Suez expedition.
But he made his indelible mark in French politics by obsessively picking at the scabs of the country's dark past. He boasted of using torture in Algeria to combat terrorism; called the gas chambers "a point of detail" of the Second World War; used time-and-motion calculations to dispute the number of Auschwitz victims; and described France's German occupiers as "very civilised".
He was several times condemned under French incitement laws - all of which he used to paint himself as a larger-than-life pariah in the too-tame, self-referential world of French politics.
This history, of which she is acutely aware, Marine Le Pen has actively tried to put behind her. She has disavowed her father on several points, not least in references to the Second World War. She goes further in private, say her friends, "but she doesn't want to attack her father in public."
At 42, a handsome, single working mother of three, she presents herself as the young, modern face of the Front National, in sharp contrast to her defeated opponent in the Party leadership contest, the 60-year-old academic Bruno Gollnisch, under whose banner the Party's residual hardliners had sought an increasingly exiguous shelter.
In the Gollnisch camp gather the "tradis", the traditionalist Catholics who are horrified by Marine's support of gay rights - short of gay marriage - and refusal to support abolition of the 1975 law permitting abortion. (She says she only wants all provisions of the law strictly applied, so that women are first offered "alternatives" such as pre-natal adoption.)
No-one in France will admit to anti-Semitism, which is actionable by law, but campaign rumours from the Gollnisch camp included descriptions of Marine's entourage as "full of Jews, queers and Arabs".
It's an exaggeration, but it's true that her inner circle includes types not hitherto much seen at Le Paquebot, the old FN headquarters in Saint Cloud, West Paris.
But mostly, her appeal is her undeniable charisma. Photographs don't entirely do her justice: she is tall, broad-shouldered but slender, with an easy self-deprecating manner that is especially unusual in France. A barrister, she is a good public speaker, capable like her father of delivering a structured speech for an hour without notes.
If she feels her instinctive pugnacious style, modelled on her father, is making the wrong impression on her audience, she is capable of stopping in mid-sentence to address a contradictor with a smile and a joke.
She was far mellower when I asked her last week if, being divorced and raising her three children alone, she had become a new, unlikely emblem of French feminism. She gave a spontaneous belly laugh.
"Well, I'm not especially proud of this failure, you know, but I've had to deal with it and it's taught me a lot," she replied.
She supports a parental salary for young mothers and a number of Scandinavian-type measures to help women work and raise children.
"I wouldn't call myself a feminist, because I don't think relations between men and women should necessarily be confrontational; and I don't want to be reduced to my gender; and yes, I think we should find other solutions than affirmative action to break the glass ceiling. You never know if you were hired because of your competence or because a woman had to take the job, do you?"
It is interesting that two personalities she quoted positively during a half-hour conversation were two Jews: Simone Veil, the former health minister and European Parliament president, who first introduced the abortion bill, and Elisabeth Badinter, the left-wing feminist author.
On television, she is a redoubtable debater, having honed her bruiser's skills in numerous panels in which most of the other participants seemed to gang up against her. This, of course, has helped her: the Front National always made a meal of representing the citizens left without a voice.
The thrust of her political discourse is a mix of protectionism, almost Leftist social welfare economics and French nationalism that seems tailored to the present post-crisis Zeitgeist in France.
Following her father, she has built a strong nationwide support by opposing unchecked immigration, but insists this has nothing to do with racism and is only about proper assimilation into the French culture.
Almost alone of the French political class, she has jumped on the European anti-Islamist bandwagon, and makes approving reference to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and Oskar Freysiger of Switzerland.
The latest polls give her good reason to look forward to the coming year.
In recent weeks, Le Monde and Marianne, the news weekly, published figures showing that close to one quarter of the Gaullist electorate sympathises with her views; and that almost half of all French voters agree with her on insecurity and crime.
One third agree on immigration, one third on "secularism" - code in France for disagreeing with the encroachment of Islam on society - and one quarter on leaving the euro.
Fascinatingly, 74 per cent of the French would describe her as "courageous". (Meanwhile 59 per cent consider her "racist", 47 per cent "modern" and 42 per cent "close to people's concerns.")
Such figures would make her France's most electable politician if she weren't called Le Pen.
But if she weren't called Le Pen, would she be where she is now?
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011