Le Pen's rival throws down gauntlet

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THE FAR-RIGHT National Front moved a step closer to disintegration yesterday when Bruno Megret, the second force in the party, openly challenged the authority of the president, Jean-Marie Le Pen, for the first time.

Mr Megret backed a campaign for an emergency congress of NF members early next year, to resolve the increasingly vicious battle for power between the two men. The proposal has already been rejected by Mr Le Pen. But Mr Megret said he had more than enough support, under the party's rules, to impose a congress against Mr Le Pen's will.

Other NF officials and members have been summarily thrown out of the party in recent days for campaigning for a conference. Mr Le Pen must now decide whether he is strong enough to risk outright civil war in the party - even a permanent split - by ejecting Mr Megret.

Mr Le Pen's youngest daughter, Marine, yesterday challenged Mr Megret to disavow the calls for a congress or quit the NF. Later, at a packed press conference in a Paris hotel (it appears he no longer feels welcome at party headquarters), Mr Megret, 49, said he would "never leave the National Front, neither by resigning, nor by being excluded".

Although he added that he was opposed to a "scission" of the party, this amounted to a threat to take his supporters into a separate, extreme nationalist movement if ejected by Mr Le Pen. Asked about Marine Le Pen's intervention, Mr Megret said contemptuously: "I have asked my own children not to get involved in this affair." Both Mr Megret's children are infants.

The dispute between the two men, long submerged, has burst into the open in recent weeks with a series of dismissals of party workers and exclusions of officials close to Mr Megret.

Under the party's rules, 20 per cent of the 50,000 NF members can demand an "extraordinary congress". Mr Megret said yesterday the plan had the support of 53 out of 95 local parties and 11 out of 22 regional bodies.