Steering clear of scandals and of debates about Ukraine, France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen is gaining ground ahead of a presidential election and increasingly confident she has a fighting chance of defeating incumbent Emmanuel Macron.

Although the incumbent has enjoyed a lift in the polls since Russia invaded Ukraine, Le Pen's focus on plans to boost purchasing power for worse-off people has also resonated as energy costs and inflation surge.

With surveys showing her clawing up to within five or six percentage points of Macron in a hypothetical second-round match, Le Pen says she's "never been so close to victory" in a presidential race.

Marine Le Pen says she has 'never been so close' to the French presidency
Marine Le Pen says she has 'never been so close' to the French presidency AFP / SEBASTIEN BOZON

Although Macron tried to brush the idea off as "political fiction", left-wing daily Liberation warned Thursday on its front page that Le Pen "looks more dangerous than ever".

After spending years attempting to detoxify the brand of her father Jean-Marie's National Front party -- including changing its name to "National Rally" -- Le Pen made the run-off vote in 2017 but was tripped up by Macron in the TV debate.

This time, some thought she would be hobbled by a rival candidacy from anti-immigration pundit Eric Zemmour.

Profile of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen
Profile of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen AFP / Anibal MAIZ CACERES

But where Zemmour has hammered his conspiracy-theory theme of a supposed "great replacement" of white French people by newcomers from the Middle East and Africa, Le Pen "made the opposite choice, to normalise, to soften, to smooth her words," said Stanford University professor Cecile Alduy.

"Her programme hasn't changed at all on Front National fundamentals like immigration and national identity, but she's used a different vocabulary" around cherished French values like secularism and even feminism, Alduy added.

Macron has taken up this theme, saying Thursday that there is a "duo on the far right and I'm fighting it" and lamenting the crumbling of the traditional "republican front" against the extremes.

President Emmanuel Macron (C) has stepped up campaigning after weeks tied up with the Ukraine crisis
President Emmanuel Macron (C) has stepped up campaigning after weeks tied up with the Ukraine crisis AFP / Ludovic MARIN

"People have normalised it, looked away, they're saying 'they've got nicer'... so we shouldn't be surprised" to see a strong Le Pen, he added, using the former Front National name to emphasise that the party's core ideas have not changed.

Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour has faded in the polls in recent days
Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour has faded in the polls in recent days AFP / Thomas SAMSON

While Zemmour's support appears to be flagging ahead of the first round on April 10, a study published Saturday by the Jean-Jaures Foundation suggested Le Pen has hung on to working-class voters who backed her in 2017.

The National Rally (RN) vote "is essentially made up of workers, of employees, people who aren't in the most (economically) precarious positions but just above," said Sylvain Crepon, a researcher specialising in the far right at the University of Tours.

While those voters remain concerned above all about immigration and security, Le Pen's addressing those lacking the resources to cushion spiking inflation "lets her look more serious, show that she has something else to offer," Crepon added.

"The choice between us and Macron is between the power of money benefiting a few and purchasing power benefiting everyone," the far-right candidate has said.

Ministers and Macron himself proudly point to tallies of tens of billions of euros (dollars) of public money mobilised to ease rising costs at petrol pumps and on gas and electricity bills -- but many voters still feel the pain in their pockets.

For her part, Le Pen has vowed to slash fuel taxes in response to the spike in prices around the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russia.

But beyond economic and social measures, her spokesman Julien Odoul told RFI radio Thursday that "we have a historic opportunity to get national ideas into power with Marine Le Pen."

Those include removing social benefits from many foreigners living and working in France, which the RN claims would save 9.2 billion euros ($10.2 billion) per year.

Last time round Le Pen suffered in the second round as Macron dismantled her economic programme in the TV debate, and "she remains vulnerable, because in the end her programme hasn't changed," Crepon said.

"For five years there's been a haemorrhage of officials, activists, supporters from the RN... there's a lack of grey matter, so to speak," he added.

What's more, Le Pen's past professions of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin -- going as far as visiting him in 2017 and accepting a loan to finance her party -- could drag on her.

Le Pen was quick to condemn the attack but still pushed a position of "equidistance from the great powers" rather than Western solidarity in a weekend interview with the Journal Du Dimanche.

"In France people are generally leaning pro-Ukraine, in a possible second round against Macron, that could handicap her," Crepon said.