Veteran French far-right leader prepares to step down

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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 has shaken up French politics.

Party members were gathering in the western city of Tours where Le Pen, 82, was to make a farewell speech Saturday afternoon before handing over to his daughter Marine, due to be officially named his successor on Sunday.

There was a heavy police presence around the conference centre hosting the party gathering in Tours, where rights groups and left-wing political groups said they planned peaceful demonstrations.

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.

Recent polls say about 17 percent of the French would vote for her as president, posing a big challenge for President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of the 2012 election.

"It's a fresh start for the Front. Our members want to win," said one young supporter.

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

Jean-Marie Le Pen, an ex-paratrooper, 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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