FILE PHOTO: Marine Le Pen, French far-right National Front (FN) party president, member of European Parliament and candidate in the French 2017 presidential elections, speaks to the media in Paris, France, January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) - Every week, a small group of Marine Le Pen's aides brainstorm on how to achieve what many say is impossible: change how most French people view her to get her elected president in May.
The "Idea-Image" committee of Le Pen's far-right National Front (FN) consists of about 10 party officials and supporters. It held its first meeting in October as the party kicked off its presidential campaigning.
The job of the group is to advise 48-year-old Le Pen and her top campaign officials on a wide range of issues from where to hold rallies and what issues to highlight, to campaign posters, speeches and online campaigns.
While opinions polls predict the leader of the anti-immigration, anti-Europe FN will make it to the election's second round in May, they see her losing that run-off because a majority of voters still have a negative view of her. The Idea-Image panel's task is to help change public hearts and minds.
"I'm just out of a meeting where we talked about our online viral campaigns and all the trips the candidate (Le Pen) will undertake, with one key theme per trip," said Sebastien Chenu, an FN regional councillor in northern France who jointly heads the committee with Le Pen's brother-in-law Philippe Olivier.
It was in one of those committee meetings that the idea of the #TheTrueFillon campaign was born, he said, referring to when FN officials and supporters spread a series of messages on Twitter attacking conservative candidate Francois Fillon just after he won his party's nomination in late November.
"We had one campaign ready for (Fillon's losing opponent Alain) Juppe and one for Fillon, so we could push it out immediately," Chenu, who used to work in the communications departments of the government and state-owned TV station France 24, told Reuters in a phone interview.
The online anti-Fillon drive targeted his plans to shrink the public workforce and questioned his credibility on immigration, calling him "the establishment's new star".
"Francois Fillon in power would bring a terrible economic and social decline for families and middle-class and working-class French," Le Pen's campaign director David Rachline said in a web video sent to supporters and posted on his Twitter feed.
A key objective of the FN's strategy is to soften Le Pen's image and boost her appeal beyond grassroots supporters of the FN.
Since launching her campaign, she has spoken in a TV interview about her love of gardening, her cooking speciality - a traditional Brittany cake with caramelised apples - and her childhood, for example.
Her blog, meanwhile, has showed pictures of the mother-of-three petting kittens and dogs, visiting farms and travelling abroad.
Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, a political communications expert at the CNRS research institute, characterised the strategy as being about the "de-demonisation" of Le Pen.
"She wants to show that she is a woman like any other ... that she has a heart."
The FN views much of the mainstream media as set against it and sees the internet as a crucial campaigning battleground. Social media networks "are essential to talk directly to the people without a filter," Le Pen said last week.
More Twitter campaigns like #TheTrueFillon one are also in the pipeline, Chenu said, without giving further details.
All presidential candidates have communications team, but the FN says its own is different because it has not hired any big communications or advertisement agency.
"We do everything in-house. We don't have much money, it obliges us to be more creative," Chenu said, referring to the fact that with fewer elected officials than mainstream parties, the FN receives less public funding. The FN says it is struggling to get loans to finance its campaign.
Le Pen, a trained lawyer who took over the FN's leadership from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, has sought to soften its image and re-brand it as a party that protects those who suffer from globalisation.
She has herself acknowledged the importance of the Idea-Image committee to her campaign.
"They do the spadework on ideas and how to bring them about," she told reporters last week. "It's brainstorming, people who think about everything ... and then the directors of the campaign decide."
Those directors are Le Pen, Rachline and Florian Philippot, her deputy and the party's communications and strategy chief.
Aside from Chenu and Olivier, members of the Idea-Image committee also include several other senior party officials.
One is Philippe Vardon, a founder of the "Bloc Identitaire", an anti-Islam group that calls for the preservation of Europe's ethnic heritage, and now an FN councillor in southeast France.
Julien Odoul, an FN councillor in eastern France, and Philippe Murer, an economic adviser to Le Pen, are also on the panel.
The committee also includes party supporters who work in the media or public relations, Chenu said, adding that they did not want their names to be published. They are volunteers and are not paid for their contributions, he said.
The promotional paraphernalia for the campaign bears no reference to the FN or even the Le Pen family name but instead shows a blue rose, rather than the party's trademark flame motif, and simply the moniker "Marine".
Le Pen herself came up with the idea of a blue rose as a campaign logo, which was then designed by an in-house graphic artist, and her campaign slogan "In the name of the people", according to FN officials.
The logo, Le Pen says, is meant to symbolise that she wants to bring all French together - the rose being the symbol of the Socialists and the colour blue associated with the political right in France. FN officials say a blue rose is also meant to symbolise making the impossible possible.
While other parties in France have sometimes done away with their logos for presidential elections, it is rare to drop a candidate's family name.
Using only "Marine" highlights that she is the only woman among the top candidates, and aims at establishing a more direct link with voters, aides say.
"For Marine Le Pen to make herself better known, as a woman, as a candidate, is certainly a key, because a presidential election is not only about a project but also about a person," Philippot told Reuters.
However omitting her surname also serves to distance herself further from her father, who alienated swathes of the population and was convicted of inciting racial hatred. She kicked him out of the party in 2015.
While Jean-Marie Le Pen, a provocative former paratrooper, was content with attracting protest votes, his daughter targets power.
Le Pen does, however, face a delicate balancing act if she is to win power - to attract mainstream support while keeping a grip on the FN's core voters.
This was evident at a Paris Christmas market last month when she shook hands with Father Christmas, posed for pictures and said her Christmas wish was "for France to pick a leader who thinks of the people".
But just before the photo op, she offered a somewhat less festive message for immigrants. "If you come to our country, don't expect that you will be taken care of, treated and that your children will be educated for free," she said.
"That's finished now, it's the end of playtime."
(Additional reporting by Johnny Cotton; Editing by Pravin Char)