Members reject Le Pen's 'modern' National Front

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The Independent Online

A battle for the dark soul of France's far-right party, the National Front, exploded into the open yesterday when several senior party members defied their leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and attended a two-day dissident conference in the Rhône valley.

A battle for the dark soul of France's far-right party, the National Front, exploded into the open yesterday when several senior party members defied their leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and attended a two-day dissident conference in the Rhône valley.

Amid allegations that the NF had been taken over by a "modernising" coterie, led by M. Le Pen's youngest daughter, Marine, senior party members ignored a direct order from the party leader and met members of other far-right groups in the town of Orange, north of Avignon.

The conference, organised by the town's NF mayor, Jacques Bompard, who has been estranged from Le Pen for several months, could signal the beginning of a long-expected leadership struggle within western Europe's most powerful far-right party.

Senior figures in the xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-European and anti-American party have been dismayed by the rise of Mme Le Pen, 35, and her attempts to move the NF towards a more "modern" agenda on issues ranging from abortion to the European Union.

Long-festering resentment burst into the open in recent days when M. Le Pen abruptly dumped senior party figures from prominent positions on the NF regional lists of candidates for the European parliament elections next month. They were replaced by relatively obscure party members close to Mme Le Pen.

In protest at the increasingly arbitrary running of what has always been an authoritarian party, many NF activists in the Marseilles-Nice area boycotted a pre-election rally by M. Le Pen in Toulon last week.

"Le Chef" found himself addressing a half-empty hall - something unprecedented in the recent history of a party founded on worship of the nation, the flag and the leader.

M. Le Pen, 75, flew into a public rage and threatened punishment of anyone who attended the two-day conference organised by M. Bompard this weekend.

"There is only one leader in this party and it is me," he said.

The crisis within the NF resembles in some ways the internal squabbles which led to a split in the party in early 1999, when the de-facto number two, Bruno Mégret left to form his own far-right group, the Mouvement National Républicain. Observers of the NF believe, however, that the present crisis may be even more cataclysmic.

M. Mégret's ambitions and limited loyalty were well-known. In this case, M. Le Pen has fallen out with some of the most stalwart and, previously, loyal members of the NF. Marie-France Stirbois, 59, an NF Euro MP and the widow of one of the founders of the party, was dumped from the party's European election lists in the Provence area 10 days ago. She launched a tirade against the Le Pen family in the virulently anti-NF newspaper, Le Monde, yesterday.

Confirming that she intended to go to the meeting in Orange, Mme Stirbois, who has considerable support in the movement, said: "I observe that a coterie of a few people now holds a mischievous influence over Jean-Marie Le Pen. They have managed to sever him from his true friends in the movement ...

"It seems to me that M. Le Pen and his entourage are trying to eliminate anyone who might oppose the so-called wishes of Marine Le Pen to modernise the programme of the National Front ... but the essence of the party has always been to stick to its core values and not try to please everybody."

The core of the quarrel is partly ideological but mostly personal. Marine Le Pen has made it clear that she believes that the NF should adopt at least a veneer of modernity, especially on issues of personal freedom, such as abortion. This has annoyed the fundamentalist catholic strand of a party of many different tribal allegiances.

Mme Le Pen's rise has also alarmed supporters of the party's number two, and presumed successor to M. Le Pen, Bruno Gollnisch. When M. Gollnisch mildly complained in public last week about the dumping of Mme Stirbois - an unprecedented rebellion for him - he was shouted down by M. Le Pen.

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