Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s National Front (FN), pulled out of regional elections Monday after a fierce public spat with his daughter, who now leads the far-right party.
The move promises to ease tensions both within the Le Pen family and the anti-European, anti-immigration FN, which has enjoyed considerable electoral success in recent years as Marine Le Pen seeks to clean up its racist and anti-Semitic image.
Le Pen senior, 86, incurred his daughter’s wrath earlier this month by repeating an assertion that the Nazi gas chambers were a “detail of history”.
He then followed that up with a defence of France’s World War II leader Philippe Petain, who collaborated with the Nazis.
This appeared to be the last straw for Marine, who accused her father of committing “political suicide” and said she would not support his standing in regional elections in December.
– New ‘dig’ at daughter –
After days of sniping that have dominated the headlines in France, Le Pen senior appeared to fall on his sword Monday.
He told the Le Figaro magazine he would not be standing in the southeast of France for the party even though “I think I was the best candidate for the National Front”.
But in stepping down, the 86-year-old appeared to aim another dig at his daughter.
Asked who should stand in his place, he anointed his granddaughter Marion Marechal-Le Pen, 25, a rising star in the party with views considered more conservative than Marine’s.
“If she accepts, I think she would head a very good list (of candidates). She is certainly the best,” he told the magazine.
“If I have to make the sacrifice for the future of the (FN) movement, it will not be me who has caused the damage,” he said, in an apparent reference to Marine.
In a later statement, he said he would “not be party” to a “serious crisis” that has hit the FN because of his recent comments.
The interviews “do not justify the racket that has been set off in our ranks which could weaken our movement to a dangerous degree,” he said.
Jean-Marie had previously said that he would not go quietly, accusing his daughter of “shooting herself in the foot”.
His anointed successor Marion has kept a studious silence on the squabbles although she did voice disagreement with her grandfather’s Holocaust comments.
– ‘Battle stations’ –
Some analysts see a deliberate “good cop, bad cop” strategy in place — Jean-Marie shocks and Marine slaps him down, enabling her to burnish her credentials as a relative moderate.
While jettisoning Jean-Marie is likely to rile the party hardliners, it may also attract those disenchanted with the two main parties who had previously seen the veteran provocateur as an impassable barrier to voting FN.
In a poll published on Sunday, more than two-thirds (67 percent) of FN voters said they were in favour of Jean-Marie’s departure while 74 percent said they believed his media sorties were harming the party.
“After the comments of Jean-Marie Le Pen… the National Front finds itself yet again plunged into crisis,” said polling group Ifop.
The party’s deputy, Florian Philippot, hailed what he described as a “wise” decision from Jean-Marie.
Under Marine Le Pen, the FN has enjoyed a series of election success, notably coming first in last year’s European elections.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned the far-right party is at the “gates of power” and insists its policies would be a “disaster” for the country.
The FN advocates that France, a founding member of the European Union, withdraw from the bloc and would also pull out of the euro, reintroducing the franc.
Political opponents sought to extract every last advantage out of the affair.
Gerald Darmanin, an MP from the right-wing UMP opposition party, tweeted: “The grandfather’s not standing. So the granddaughter stands instead. We don’t know about the aunt yet.”
“This isn’t politics, it’s ‘Dallas’,” he said in reference to a US soap about a back-stabbing oil dynasty.
But despite throwing in the towel in this latest battle, the political veteran — known as the “Menhir” both because of his Breton roots and his immovability — does not appear to be losing his appetite for a fight.
“As long as God gives me breath, I will remain at battle stations,” he said.