Veteran French far-right leader Le Pen steps down
The leader of France's National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen stepped down on Saturday after four decades, marking the end of an era for his anti-immigrant party which shook up French politics.
In a farewell speech to supporters, the 82-year-old ex-paratrooper rejected the outrage sparked over the years by comments that saw him branded a racist but did not stop him garnering double digit percentages of the vote in several presidential races.
He reiterated his doom-laden warnings on the party's two biggest issues: the spread of Islam and immigration, favourite political issues for far-right parties across Europe.
Le Pen's youngest daughter Marine, 42, is due to take over as party leader on Sunday, bringing a softer, feminine face to the party widely branded sexist and racist, ahead of next year's presidential election.
Recent polls say about 17 percent of the French would vote for Marine Le Pen to lead the nation, posing a big challenge for right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front (FN) in 1972 and built it into a strong political force, making international headlines when he shocked voters by coming second in the 2002 presidential election.
He changed the political game in France, forcing the mainstream right to compete with the FN on immigration and law and order issues.
Sarkozy did so successfully in the 2007 presidential election and has since pushed a hard line on Islam, crime and immigrants.
That is widely seen as a strategy to stop the far-right winning over voters in 2012 and has raised concern among rights groups.
In his speech, Le Pen defended the outspoken comments that brought him notoriety during nearly 40 years at the party helm, notably his claim in 1987 that the wartime Nazi death camps were a mere "detail of history."
"All my comments were distorted from their true meaning... because I refused to submit to the dictatorship of the thought police," he said during a speech of more than an hour, often punching the air and drowned out by cheers.
Police put up barricades around the conference centre hosting the party gathering in the northwestern French town of Tours, where rights groups and left-wing political movements staged a protest march nearby.
Some demonstrators hurled stones and firecrackers at police, who responded by firing tear gas. At least four people were arrested, AFP correspondents at the scene reported.
"They're hunting immigrants, they want to keep women in the home. They are racist, they are sexist, down with the FN!" the demonstrators chanted.
Inside the conference venue, hundreds of supporters young and old milled around and National Front souvenir cigarette lighters and T-shirts with the slogan "Proud to be French" were on sale.
"I'm sorry to see him go," said Alain Lavarde, a 64-year-old supporter and a former paratrooper like Le Pen. "But things will continue as before" under the new leader, he added.
"I know that the presence of the National Front in political life is a comfort and a hope for millions of our compatriots," said Le Pen, in a speech that drew bellows of approval from supporters.
But alongside the message of hope were fearsome warnings about immigrants and France's six-million-strong Muslim population, drawing angry boos from the crowd at the mention of what Le Pen called the "conquest of our country."
"The ethnic transformation of our country is visible... The consequences of this tidal wave are evident in the level of education of our children... and the unity of our nation," he said.
Like her father, Marine Le Pen has not avoided causing outrage with outspoken comments. Last month she compared Muslims praying in the streets outside overcrowded mosques in France to the Nazi occupation.
Party officials said Marine Le Pen beat her rival, the traditional party stalwart Bruno Gollnisch, 60, in an internal leadership vote.
The results were to be formally announced on Sunday morning and the victor is due to speak in the afternoon.
Anti-racism groups are not impressed by the prospect. The head of SOS Racisme, Dominique Sopo, said in a statement on Saturday that the leadership change "replaces one peddler of hate with another."
© 2011 AFP