Daughter succeeds dad at French far-right party

SYLVIE CORBET - Associated Press
The Associated Press
Marine Le Pen reacts after her election as leader of the French  far right party National Front during their national congress in Tours, western France, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011.  Le Pen, the 42-year-old daughter of far-right firebrand Jean Marie Le Pen,  won slightly more than two-thirds of the vote in an election for its new president. The 82-year-old party founder bid his farewell Saturday with an impassioned defense of his polemic anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform. He created the party in 1972. A mother of three, Marine is widely seen as the kinder, gentler face of a party known for its extreme stances.(AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
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Marine Le Pen reacts after her election as leader of the French far right party National Front during their national congress in Tours, western France, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011. Le Pen, the 42-year-old daughter of far-right firebrand Jean Marie Le Pen, won slightly more than two-thirds of the vote in an election for its new president. The 82-year-old party founder bid his farewell Saturday with an impassioned defense of his polemic anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform. He created the party in 1972. A mother of three, Marine is widely seen as the kinder, gentler face of a party known for its extreme stances.

France's far-right National Front party elected the daughter of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as its new leader Sunday, who says she wants to broaden the appeal of a party known best for its anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform.

Le Pen, who has been convicted for minimizing the Holocaust, left the leadership of the party he created 38 years ago by dropping an anti-Semitic reference about a journalist at a weekend party gathering.

Marine Le Pen, 42, won slightly more than two-thirds of the vote in an election at a National Front convention in the central city of Tours — easily beating the other candidate, longtime party No. 2 Bruno Gollnisch.

Her victory, which had been expected, means she is likely to represent the party in the 2012 presidential race. Her father already said he wouldn't run after five losing bids — and a shockingly strong one nine years ago, when he qualified for the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac.

With characteristic pique, the 82-year-old party founder took aim Sunday at a reporter from France-24 television who said that he had been roughed up by security staff at the convention the night before.

"The person in question believed it was necessary to say that it was because he was Jewish that he was thrown out. That couldn't be seen either on his (press) card or on his nose — if I dare say it," Le Pen told reporters.

Le Pen has been repeatedly fined and convicted over his long political career, such as for inciting racial hatred by saying France might be overrun by Muslims and calling the World War II gas chambers "a detail" of history.

He hit his political peak by defeating the Socialist prime minister and others to reach the 2002 presidential election runoff. The National Front leader lost to Chirac, as mainstream parties of left and right united to defeat Le Pen.

Though he retired from the party with a fiery and unapologetic speech Saturday night, Le Pen remains the National Front's honorary president.

A divorced mother of three, Marine Le Pen is widely seen as the kinder, gentler face of a party known for its extreme stances. In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, she said she wanted the party to widen its focus — and reputation — to beyond issues of immigration and security.

"I refuse to accept as inevitable the fact that we have been demonized ... that we have to continue to be insulted, consigned to the edge of political life and excluded from the democratic field," she said.

In her first address as party president on Sunday, Marine Le Pen touched on her father's favorite themes, but without ever using the words "immigrants" or "Islam."

"Our country is at risk of dismemberment. ... The values of our civilization, our traditions, our way of life and our customs are being contested in many quarters — in schools, in the public sphere and in entire neighborhoods," she said, in a none-so-veiled swipe at immigrant communities here.

Marine Le Pen's attempts to widen the base have sowed discord within the party, which has had financial troubles after a poor showing in the 2007 presidential race. Some members want the party to keep its outsider status.

"Marine has charm, charisma, she looks great on TV — but it's not enough," said party member Anne-Marie Lacalmette, saying she didn't believe Marine Le Pen was up to the job. "I am sad. I am very sad."

Others thought the daughter's tack would widen the party's appeal.

"Marine will allow us to reach another electorate," said another party supporter, Remi Carillon. "I think we had about 20 per cent of voters. Now I think that we could reach 30 per cent in the coming years."

Meanwhile in Marseille, a Mediterranean port city that is home to many French citizens with family heritage in North Africa, some said they regretted the handover from father to daughter.

"We all are well aware of her father's racist ideas about foreigners, Arabs and religious beliefs," said Jamel Khebir, looking to the 2012 elections. "If people vote for her, it will lead to chaos in France."

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Catherine Gaschka in Tours and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.