M. Le Pen, 77, has axed Jacques Bompard, the mayor of Orange - the National Front's most senior elected official - from the party's "political bureau" or governing body.
M. Bompard, the only member of the NF still in charge of a French town, denounced the veteran far right leader as a "Stalinist". He said he would leave the NF immediately and might join forces with the rising figure on the nationalist right in France, the Catholic fundamentalist aristocrat, Philippe de Villiers.
M. de Villiers, 56, who has attracted a stream of NF dissidents, launched his campaign yesterday for the next presidential election, still 20 months away. He made a series of inflammatory statements on race and immigration, as if deliberately appealing to M. Le Pen's restless electorate. M. de Villiers, president of the Mouvement pour la France, said he would campaign to "stop the gradual Islamisation of French society".
M. Bompard has been at odds with M. Le Pen for more than two years, complaining that the NF had become a political vehicle for the the leader and his family. Instead of channelling resources into winnable local campaigns, he said, all the NF's energy and finances were going into M. Le Pen's presidential ambitions, which were doomed to failure.
The last straw came when M. Bompard, as mayor of Orange in the Rhône valley, fined NF activists for fly-posting "Non" posters in the town during the EU referendum campaign this spring.
M. Bompard was one of four NF members elected to run medium-sized towns in France in 1995 in what was seen as a breakthrough for the far right. Of the other three, in Toulon, Marignane and Vitrolles, all later left the party. Only one is still office, as an independent. M. Le Pen will be almost 79 at the next presidential election but plans to run again. In the past 12 months, he has also quarrelled with his youngest daughter, Marine, who seemed to be a possible successor. Marine Le Pen had been trying to modernise the party and to clean up its image. She was reportedly devastated when her father said in an interview that the Nazis had behaved "correctly" in France during the Second World War.Reuse content