PARIS • Little more than a week before France's presidential election, Marine Le Pen remains a front-runner after working hard to sanitise the image of her party, the National Front, and to distance it from the uglier associations of Europe's far right.
But descriptions of the inner workings of her party by present and former close Le Pen associates, as well as court documents, raise fresh doubts about the success and sincerity of those efforts.
Even before Ms Le Pen's remarks this week denying France's culpability in a notorious wartime roundup of Jews, recent revelations in the French news media revived nagging concerns about the sympathies of the woman who would be France's next president.
Two men in her innermost circle - Frederic Chatillon and Axel Loustau - are well-known former members of a violent, far-right student union that fought pitched battles with leftists and took a turn towards Hitler nostalgia in the mid-1990s. They have been Ms Le Pen's associates since her law school days in the 1980s and remain among her closest friends, according to numerous accounts.
French television recently broadcast video from the 1990s of Loustau visiting an ageing prominent former Schutzstaffel (SS) member, Leon Degrelle, a decorated warrior for Hitler and the founder of the Belgian Rex party, a pre-war fascist movement. Other video showed Chatillon speaking warmly of his own visit with Degrelle.
Some in the National Front flatly deny Chatillon and Loustau are either anti-Semitic or nostalgic for the Third Reich, while others make no secret of avoiding them.
But their lingering presence in Ms Le Pen's inner circle has called into question the sincerity of her strategy to "un-demonise" her party and renounce its heritage of deep-rooted anti-Semitism since she took over from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011.
"By the evidence," said historian Nicolas Lebourg, a leading National Front specialist at the University of Montpellier, "she considers it's not something very important."
The two trusted men continue to work closely with the party's top leadership, including Ms Le Pen. They have been charged by French prosecutors in an elaborate campaign-finance scheme that has been crucial to keeping the National Front afloat for years.
The financial scandals have not dented Ms Le Pen in the polls before the first round of voting on April 23.