France's Le Pen pulls out of poll after family feud

Richard Carter
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French far-right Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has been discharged from hospital after a short stint for a heart problem, a source close to the former party leader said

French far-right Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has been discharged from hospital after a short stint for a heart problem, a source close to the former party leader said (AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard)

Paris (AFP) - Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France's National Front (FN), pulled out of regional elections Monday and anointed his granddaughter in his place, after a fierce public spat with his daughter who now leads the far-right party.

The move promises to ease tensions both within the Le Pen family and the anti-European, anti-immigration FN, which has enjoyed considerable electoral success in recent years as Marine Le Pen seeks to clean up its racist and anti-Semitic image.

The 86-year-old party founder told the Le Figaro magazine he would not be standing in the southeast of France in December elections even though "I think I was the best candidate for the National Front".

Asked who should stand in his place, he anointed his granddaughter Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a rising star in the party with views considered more conservative than Marine's.

"If she accepts, I think she would head a very good list (of candidates). She is certainly the best," he told the magazine.

Marion, a telegenic blonde 25-year-old who is France's youngest member of parliament, confirmed she would stand in the election.

"She'll go for it," her press officer Arnaud Stephan told AFP.


- 'Political suicide' -


Le Pen senior incurred his daughter's wrath earlier this month by repeating an assertion that the Nazi gas chambers were a "detail of history".

He then followed that up with a defence of France's World War II leader Philippe Petain, who collaborated with the Nazis.

This appeared to be the last straw for Marine, who accused her father of committing "political suicide" and said she would not support his standing in regional elections in December.

After days of sniping that have dominated the headlines in France, Le Pen senior appeared to fall on his sword Monday.

In a statement, he said he would not be party to a "serious crisis" that has hit the FN because of his recent comments.

The interviews "do not justify the racket that has been set off in our ranks which could weaken our movement to a dangerous degree," he said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen had previously said that he would not go quietly, accusing his daughter of "shooting herself in the foot".

His anointed successor Marion had kept a studious silence on the squabbles although she did voice disagreement with her grandfather's Holocaust comments.

In an interview with Le Figaro Monday, she said she had not wanted to add to "the escalation in comments I felt were harmful to the harmony of our movement."

She added she had seen her grandfather on Friday, and had been surprised by his move to ease tensions.

"I feared that he would go to the bitter end, whatever the cost. But I found him in a spirit that was not at all hateful or vengeful, but constructive, tuned in and even a little sorry about the situation."

Some analysts see a deliberate "good cop, bad cop" strategy in place -- Jean-Marie shocks and Marine slaps him down, enabling her to burnish her credentials as a relative moderate.

While jettisoning Jean-Marie is likely to rile the party hardliners, it may also attract those disenchanted with the two main parties who had previously seen the veteran provocateur as an impassable barrier to voting FN.


- 'Battle stations' -


In a poll published on Sunday, more than two-thirds (67 percent) of FN voters said they were in favour of Jean-Marie's departure while 74 percent said they believed his media sorties were harming the party.

"After the comments of Jean-Marie Le Pen... the National Front finds itself yet again plunged into crisis," said polling group Ifop.

The party's deputy, Florian Philippot, hailed what he described as a "wise" decision from Jean-Marie.

Under Marine Le Pen, the FN has enjoyed a series of election success, notably coming first in last year's European elections.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned the far-right party is at the "gates of power" and insists its policies would be a "disaster" for the country.

The FN advocates that France, a founding member of the European Union, withdraw from the bloc and would also pull out of the euro, reintroducing the franc.

Political opponents sought to extract every last advantage out of the affair.

Gerald Darmanin, an MP from the right-wing UMP opposition party, tweeted: "The grandfather's not standing. So the granddaughter stands instead. We don't know about the aunt yet."

"This isn't politics, it's 'Dallas'," he said in reference to a US soap about a back-stabbing oil dynasty.