Le Pen `tried and deposed' by rebels

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THE PRESIDENT was briskly impeached and removed from office yesterday. President Le Pen, that is.

By a majority of Third World proportions, Bruno Megret, the rising power of the French far right, was installed as president of one half of an irretrievably fractured National Front (NF).

Jean-Marie Le Pen, aged 70, the party's founder president, was tried in his absence for high crimes and misdemeanours, ranging from cronyism to racism, making puns in bad taste and poor television performances.

Mr Le Pen described the rebels from afar as "embittered ingrates and loonies of every stripe". The NF's enemies could not have come up with a more wounding insult.

A two-day conference of Mr Megret's followers at Marignane near Marseilles claimed legitimacy as the "eleventh congress" of the party. The congress was anxious to present itself as a new, less brutal, more responsible and more democratic strain of the French ultra-right. But old instincts die hard. Most of the 2,500 delegates, though not all, booed and bayed with approval when the founder-president of the NF was put through a mock, and mocking, trial in which "le chef" was represented by a spotlit, empty, plastic chair.

Mr Megret's wind-up speech - received with rhythmic stamping, chanting and flag-waving of which Le Pen would have been proud - pledged to cleanse the party of "morbid and sick obsessions". However, Mr Megret, 49, said that there was no question of "watering the wine". He would rid the NF of Le Pen's "excesses, derailments, provocations and ill-conceived puns", but the reborn NF would stick to its core values. These turned out to be "defence of national identity" through mass repatriation of immigrants; a more repressive and morally intrusive state; and the repeal of all French commitments to the European Union.

The Megret wing of the party - to be called "Front National Mouvement National" - claims to be patriotic rather than xenophobic; to be more concerned with the threats of the present (immigration, globalism, American cultural imperialism, European federalism) than the demons of the past. However, Mr Megret, elected president of the breakaway party with 97.5 per cent of the vote, also appealed directly and crudely to racial fears. "I think," he said, "of the market near here where young North Africans are the overwhelming majority and the only French people that you meet are a few old ladies, walking with their heads down."

Earlier, one of Mr Megret's lieutenants, Franck Timmermans, read the impeachment charges against Le Pen. The overthrowing of "le chef " was presented as a democratic rebellion by the grassroots and "live forces" of the party. Mr Timmermans said Le Pen listened only to a small band of "parasites, profiteers and opportunist courtesans".

Independent estimates give Mr Megret the great majority of the party's elected officials and local activists, but only one in three of its voters. In the European election in June, he needs to pass the 5 per cent threshold for gaining seats and public funds, if his movement is not to struggle. Polls suggest he has 4 per cent.

Sociologically, Marignane was an interesting gathering, more youthful to middle-aged and more middle-class, better-educated, and better-off than a typical pre-schism NF rally. There were older people, including a surprising number of old ladies with dogs. But they tended, on inquiry, to be converts from Gaullism rather than the Vichy sympathisers or the Algerian colonial diehards who provided two of the main tributaries of Lepennism.

"Le Pen is the past," said Tony Laquin, 22, from Calais. "Le Pen is obsessed with the Second World War, with Jewish and Freemasons' plots. All that stuff means nothing to younger people on the right."

There are two ways of interpreting the weekend's events. One, the French far-right - after an unusual period of unity under the charismatic umbrella of Le Pen - has returned to the obsessive internal strife of the Thirties and Fifties. It will, for the foreseeable future, cease to be a power in the land. Two, the French far-right is regrouping and reforming into what may prove to be a better packaged, a more telegenic, a more insidiously menacing challenge to traditional French politics.

In the meantime there will be a vicious legal, and physical, settling of accounts.

"At local level, there is enmity between activists who have worked together for years," said Raimond Lacombe, 62, from the Ardennes. "As Lenin said, the most bloody, political battles are always with the people who think most like you."