French far-right endeavours to improve its image

Marile Le Pen large.jpg

The new leader of France's National Front, Marine Le Pen, warned skinheads to stay away from its annual labour day parade this weekend, stepping up efforts to improve the far-right party's image ahead of elections next year.

Marine Le Pen also said she would not revoke her decision to expel from the party a 21-year-old regional councillor photographed giving a Nazi salute, despite complaints from leading party figures including her father, former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Le Pen, who opinion polls show could qualify for the second round of the presidential polls next year at the expense of unpopular President Nicolas Sarkozy, has been credited with giving the National Front a more acceptable face for voters.

Ahead of Sunday's march, Le Pen said she would try to ensure that people with extreme views did not tarnish the party's reputation.

"We were victims in the past. We still are victims sometimes of a certain number of provocateurs," she told RTL radio.

"They attract the cameras like flies and they come to get themselves a little publicity. It's absolutely normal that we would protect ourselves from these kind of provocations."

Le Pen, 42, said the party had always told regional organisers to keep out neo-Nazis but it was not easy to ensure the instructions were followed at a march attracting thousands of people. "I will make sure they are [this time]," she said.


A telegenic former attorney, Le Pen has sought since taking the party reins in January to attract mainstream French voters fed up with rising unemployment, static wages and what she has called an "invasion" of immigrants, largely from North Africa.

In 2002, Le Pen's father reached the second round of presidential elections, feeding on disillusionment with traditional parties, before losing to Jacques Chirac.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, 82, won a legal reprieve on Wednesday when an appeal court threw out on a technicality a three-month jail sentence against him for denying crimes against humanity during the German occupation of France in World War Two. The case will be re-tried by another department within the appeals court.

The party received a boost for its 2012 electoral hopes on Wednesday when announced it had sold its headquarters in the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud for 10 million euros, allowing it to pay off debts which were encumbering its campaign.

Marine Le Pen, whose high profile prompted TIME magazine to name her one of the world's 100 most influential people, said Sarkozy had not done enough to tackle the scale of the immigration problem and praised Britain's firm action.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said this month Britain did not want "mass immigration" and immigrants' unwillingness to learn English and integrate caused problems in many communities.

"Mr Cameron has taken stock of the problem and has proposed a drastic reduction. That's what France should do," Le Pen said.

The Front's rising popularity has forced Sarkozy to step up his rhetoric on crime, immigration and assimilation of foreigners, exposing him to criticism from the French left that he is pandering to the far right's agenda.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

France will hold presidential elections in 2012 and according to recent polls Marine Le Pen is one of the leading candidates.

A poll published last March gave Le Pen 23% of voting intentions, ahead of Sarkozy and Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry.

Le Pen, 42, who succeeded her father Jean-Marie as leader of the National Front in January, has articulated fears of a mass influx of Arab refugees from the uprisings in North Africa and of a threat to France's secular order from Islam.

Sarkozy, whose popularity is at a record low 13 months before the first round of the 2012 presidential election, looks determined to try to win back Le Pen's voters by addressing the same themes as her.

But some politicians in his own camp, especially among centrists, say his strategy is counter-productive and will only legitimise Le Pen and her agenda.

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