Le Pen's HQ up for sale as party declines

For sale: prestigious offices overlooking the river Seine. Previously the headquarters of famous and (once) successful, xenophobic, political party. Offers over €16m (£12m).

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, finally conceded yesterday that his debt-burdened party would have to sell its offices in the wealthy suburb of Saint-Cloud, west of Paris.

The building, known as le paquebot (the steamship), because of its vaguely nautical look, was a symbol of the upward mobility of the party when purchased in 1994. The distress sale is a sign of a radically changed political landscape in France and foreshadows the end of the "Jean-Marie" era.

Whether it also foreshadows the disintegration of the National Front is open to question. The party plans to move into smaller, cheaper and "more appropriate" offices. M. Le Pen's daughter, Marine Le Pen, is poised to take over from her 79-year-old father in the next three years.

The arrival last year of President Nicolas Sarkozy's brand of populist, moderate, right-wing politics severely squeezed the electoral space of the most successful far-right party in any large country in western Europe. The NF lost an estimated €12m in the presidential and parliamentary elections last spring and summer because its poor results generated a smaller harvest of state electoral subsidies.

President Sarkozy's falling popularity has, however, persuaded NF diehards that they may have a future after all. Marine Le Pen said that "good can come of bad" and the move would allow the party to "bounce back" in more suitable offices. Another NF official said: "This is not a funeral. It is just the end of a fat-cat era. We will just have to be more careful about what we spend in future."

The 5,000 square metres of the Paquebot have long been more than half empty. The NF never recovered fully from a split in the party in 1999. It now has only 50 full-time officials.

In the parliamentary elections last June, it put up candidates in every constituency in France. Two thirds failed to reach 5 per cent of the vote – the level which qualifies for state re-imbursement of election expenses.

M. Le Pen has been searching for months for some other way of paying the party's estimated €8m to €9m debt. He has finally accepted that the party headquarters, once the apple of his eye, must be sold.

At a party conference last November, M. Le Pen was re-elected leader for another three years. The conference was carefully managed, however, to position his youngest daughter, Marine, 39, as the probable next leader. It remains to be seen whether this family succession will be accepted by the ultra-conservative Catholic and hard-line xenophobic wings of the party. They place the blame for last year's electoral reverses largely on Marine Le Pen's attempts to present a softer image of a modern, nationalist party open to young people and even to different races.

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