Despite recent setbacks for fellow ideologues such as Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini in Italy, a survey reported earlier this week showed her within striking distance of Macron.

The poll conducted online by Harris Interactive suggested that if a final-round presidential run-off were held today Le Pen would garner 48 per cent while Macron would be re-elected with 52 per cent, Le Parisien newspaper reported.

The margin, the narrowest ever recorded, set off alarm bells in the French political mainstream as the dual health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic sweep across the country.

“It’s the highest she has ever been at,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist specialised in the far-right, while adding that it was “too early to take the polls at face value”.

He said Le Pen was benefiting from frustration and anger over the pandemic, with France on the verge of a third lockdown, but also the beheading of a French schoolteacher by an Islamist last October.

“It had a major impact on public opinion,” the expert from the Jean-Jaures Foundation told Agence France-Presse. “And in this area, Marine Le Pen has an advantage: her party is well known for its position denouncing Islamism.”

The beheading of Samuel Paty in October 2020 in a town northwest of Paris rekindled bitter arguments in France about immigration and the threat of Islamism, while causing a major international crisis for Macron.

The secondary school teacher was attacked in the street by an 18-year-old extremist after he showed satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to his pupils during a civics class on free speech.

Two weeks later, a 21-year-old Tunisian national stabbed three people to death in a church in the southern city of Nice.

Macron came out strongly in support of the right to free speech – saying “we will not stop drawing cartoons” – while French media and even city authorities defiantly republished the caricatures, which are offensive to many Muslims.

The French leader was denounced as Islamophobic by detractors abroad, particularly Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and anti-France protests took place in many Muslim-majority countries from Bangladesh to Lebanon.

In response to Paty’s death, Macron’s government shut a number of organisations deemed Islamist and drafted law legislation initially called “the anti-separatism bill” which cracks down on foreign funding for Islamic organisations.

If re-elected after a campaign that is expected to be centred on jobs, the pandemic and the place of Islam in France, 43-year-old Macron would be the first president since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to win a second term.

Under France’s presidential system, the top two candidates in a first round of voting progress to a second-round run-off where the winner must get more than 50 per cent.

A Le Pen win “was improbable three and half years ago,” veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel told the BFM news channel this week.

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