France’s right-wing firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen has said goodbye to the National Front party he founded nearly 40 years ago with an impassioned defence of his anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform.
In his final speech as party president, the 82-year-old nationalist was unapologetic, insisting that “unceasing immigration” poses a threat to the French way of life.
Mr Le Pen’s speech centred on what he sees as the transformation of “Christian and secular France into an unbelieving France on the path of Islamisation”.
He appealed to his audience of some 1,800 supporters, saying it was up to them to ensure the National Front’s future success – under a new leader. “I entrust you with the destiny of our movement, its lasting, its unity, its pugnacity,” Mr Le Pen told the audience of the party congress in the central city of Tours. “It’s still time to join us, to sign up for the decisive battle which will open a new era for France.”
Mr Le Pen’s successor at the head of the party is yet to be be announced, but French media reports have said his daughter, Marine, won a vote that pitted her against the party’s long-time number two, Bruno Gollnisch. A report in Le Figaro daily said she had garnered 67% of the party members’ vote.
A 42-year-old mother of three, Marine Le Pen is widely seen as the kinder, gentler face of a party known for its extreme stances. French television ran footage of a visibly moved Marine Le Pen, tears streaming down her cheeks as she applauded her father.
Mr Le Pen has been convicted of inciting racial hatred for saying France might be overrun by Muslims and minimising the Holocaust for dismissing the Nazi death camps as a “detail of history”.
In 2002, he shocked France and the world by triumphing over a candidate from the opposition Socialist party and making it into the run-off against the conservative incumbent, then-president Jacques Chirac. Voters from across the political spectrum rallied around Mr Chirac to keep Jean-Marie Le Pen out of power, and he was trounced.
In the 2007 presidential election, Mr Le Pen took another drubbing, in part because Mr Chirac’s successor, conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, swiped much of his support with a tough-on-crime platform.
Now, with Sarkozy’s poll numbers lagging, the tables may be turning. A recent poll found 22% of respondents support the ideas of the National Front, up from 18% a year ago – though still lower than the 28% recorded in 2002.