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Far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted of minimizing the Holocaust and inciting racial hatred by saying France might be overrun by Muslims. But as he embarks on his fifth attempt to win the French presidency, he wants to keep discussion of his infamous remarks to a minimum.
"Monsieur, if we are here only to talk about that, then I consider that this interview is over," Le Pen snapped when The Associated Press pressed him about such comments, which have repeatedly landed him in court.
Le Pen, who blames many of France's ills on immigration, has sought to soften his image somewhat as he seeks to repeat his success of 2002, when he stunned France and Europe by beating the mainstream Socialist candidate and earned a runoff against incumbent President Jacques Chirac.
In that second round, Le Pen was trounced, as France's right and left briefly put aside their rivalry to keep the National Front leader out of the presidential Elysee Palace. Chirac won with 82 percent of the vote.
Five years on, Le Pen is predicting that he will make the runoff again.
He took the first step Wednesday when he announced that he had gathered the 500 endorsements from French mayors and other elected officials needed to make his candidature official.
Polls suggest that Francois Bayrou, a farmer and lawmaker who claims the middle ground of France's traditional left-right divide, is for the moment the biggest threat to the mainstream candidates - Socialist Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy of the governing right - and that Le Pen is running fourth. Chirac is not running in the two-round April 22 and May 6 vote.
But pollsters say Le Pen should not be counted out just yet.
"He always surges at the end of the campaign _ notably when he is more visible in the media," said Frederic Dabi, a director of the Ifop polling agency. "The vote for him is very tough to predict."
Le Pen no longer promises to outlaw abortion. Instead, he says he would hold a referendum on the issue if elected. He tempers his strong opposition to the euro with a grudging recognition that adopting the common European currency has not been all bad for France.
But he is as unbending as ever on immigration, and he still wants to pull France out of Europe's Schengen zone, which allows for the free flow of people and goods across borders.
In the interview on Tuesday night, he revived language against Muslims that has already landed him a conviction for inciting racial hatred.
"I think that massive immigration originating from the Third World that has led 10 million foreigners to enter our country over 30 years _ it's not the only problem that France faces, it's the main problem," Le Pen said.
France has an estimated 5 million Muslims. If that number were to grow to 25 million, then "they would occupy a dominant position, and we would be obliged to lower our eyes in the street," he said. "It's already the case in many cities, isn't it?"
"Activist, violent minorities are posing a threat against good people," he added.
Le Pen is 78. Experts say that many of his voters are aging. They also are being wooed by Sarkozy, Chirac's interior minister, who has unabashedly courted the far-right.
Le Pen attracts voters from across France's social divides.
His base is "an old France that is afraid of change, afraid of Europe, afraid of multiculturalism," said Nonna Mayer, an expert at Paris' prestigious Institute of Political Science in Paris.
"What holds them all together is their fear of immigration, foreigners, 'people who are not like us' and their demand for more repression, law and order and a return to the death penalty. That hasn't changed over the past 20 years."
Le Pen said his problem is not with immigrants, but with the immigration policies of French governments left, right and center of the past three decades.
"We are only now noticing ... the start of a phenomenon that if we don't plug it up will submerge our continent," he said.
Le Pen rebuffed questions about his more outrageous comments of years past.
"I've explained myself 50 times on these subjects," he said. "If you want to make an analysis and a commentary on the speeches and positions that I have taken and made for 50 years I think it's going to require an entire week in a studio to be able to do a complete and objective portrait."
In 1997, he was convicted for contesting crimes against humanity for calling the Nazi gas chambers "a detail" of World War II. In June - a month after the election - he will return to court for saying in a 2005 interview that the Nazi wartime occupation of France "was not particularly inhuman."
In the interview, he dismissed that last case as "ridiculous," and insisted that he is not racist or xenophobic. "We are pro-French," he said.
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