Veteran French far-right leader set to step down

16th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

The leader of France's National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen prepared to step down Saturday after four decades, marking the end of an era for the anti-immigrant party that shook up French politics.

Party members gathered in the western city of Tours where Le Pen, 82, officially launched a two-day conference of the party (FN) on Saturday morning.

He was due to make a full farewell speech later on Saturday before handing over the helm to his daughter Marine, who party officials said won an internal leadership vote and is to be officially named his successor on Sunday.

Without naming names, Le Pen told a hall full of supporters he was sure his successor would "take the National Front to power," prompting a noisy standing ovation.

Recent polls say about 17 percent of the French would vote for Marine Le Pen to lead the nation, posing a big challenge for President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the 2012 election.

Police put up barricades around the conference centre hosting the party gathering in Tours, where rights groups and left-wing political groups staged a protest march nearby.

"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, referring to Le Pen, a fellow former paratrooper. "But things will continue as before" under the new leader, he added.

A senior party official said late Friday that Marine Le Pen, 42, had won the leadership of the Front (FN) in a vote by its 24,000 members, beating her rival, the traditional party stalwart Bruno Gollnisch, 60.

She has made it clear she wants to challenge Sarkozy in next year's presidential election.

Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the National Front 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 caused outrage with his comments on immigrants and Jews, once dismissing the wartime Nazi death camps as a mere "detail of history."

But he changed the political game in France, winning double figures in several presidential elections and 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, in what is widely seen as a strategy to stop the far right winning over voters in 2012.

Marine, a blonde, twice-divorced mother of three, is credited with offering a softer image of the party which has been dominated by her father. A party source said she had won two thirds of members' votes.

"She embodies a new political generation in the National Front, which wants to modernise it and stop it seeming old-fashioned," said Nonna Mayer at elite politics school Sciences-Po, a specialist on the far right.

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."

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.

© 2011 AFP

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