National Front split over Le Pen's successor

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In a direct challenge to the authority of Jean-Marie Le Pen, members of the far-right party, the National Front, will attend rival conferences at opposite ends of France this week.

The official "summer university" of the NF - dominated by M. Le Pen and his increasingly powerful daughter, Marine - will be held in the spa town of Enghien-les-Bains, east of Paris, from Thursday.

At the same time, NF dissidents, who accuse Marine of trying to soften the party's line and establish alliances with the mainstream right, will hold a "university of the public mood and real country" in the town of Orange in the lower Rhône valley.

The split in the ultra-nationalist, anti-EU, anti-American, anti-immigrant party has become increasingly evident since its poor performances in regional and European elections earlier this year. However, this is the first time that the dissidents - including several of the most senior figures in the NF - have sought directly to measure their strength against that of the Le Pen clan.

Jacques Bompard, the NF mayor of Orange since 1996, and now the most senior elected NF official in the country, predicts that he will attract 300 party activists and "thinkers" to his town - exactly as many as M. Le Pen has invited to Enghien. He will be joined in the rival conference by, among others, Bernard Anthony, the leader of the Catholic fundamentalist wing of the NF, "Chrétienté Solidarité". The principal cause of the quarrel in the party (the second serious split in six years) is the succession to M. Le Pen, 76, and the increasingly obvious domination of the party by the Le Pen family and in-laws. Although officially no decision has been made, and the job is not yet open, it has become evident that M. Le Pen expects his youngest daughter, Marine, 34, to follow him as party leader.

Other senior figures in the party accuse Marine of being inexperienced, an ineffectual stump campaigner and too liberal in her attitudes, or at least her public positions. Mme Le Pen has infuriated hardliners by supporting women's right to abortion, defending homosexual marriages and quoting monetary figures in "euros", while many in the party still insist on talking in "francs".

The critics accuse Marine of wanting to turn the NF into another party of the mainstream right, capable of making electoral alliances which would allow the party to share power, like extreme nationalists in Italy and Austria.

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