Seeking makeover, French far-right party jettisons anti-Semitic founder
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Seeking makeover, French far-right party jettisons anti-Semitic founder

National Front party reelects Marine Le Pen as leader, considers name change amid bid to break into mainstream

French far-right party Front National president Marine Le Pen speaks during her party's congress on March 11, 2018 in Lille, north of France, after being re-elected for a third term as leader. (AFP/PHILIPPE HUGUEN)
French far-right party Front National president Marine Le Pen speaks during her party's congress on March 11, 2018 in Lille, north of France, after being re-elected for a third term as leader. (AFP/PHILIPPE HUGUEN)

PARIS, France — France’s far-right National Front definitively severed its ties to firebrand founder Jean-Marie Le Pen on Sunday, as the nationalist party completes a makeover designed to revive its fortunes after his daughter failed to win the presidency last year.

Despite her troubles, Marine Le Pen was re-elected to a new term as party president at a congress where she was the only candidate for the post. A new leadership structure and 100-member governing council was also named.

The anti-immigrant party won a boost from a guest star appearance at the congress Saturday by former White House strategist Steve Bannon. He told National Front members that “history is on our side.”

Party members approved new bylaws aimed at restructuring after internal divisions — and that include abolishing Jean-Marie Le Pen’s position of party president for life. The party tweeted Sunday that more than 79 percent of participants approved the new statutes.

Jean-Marie Le Pen didn’t attend the congress.

French far-right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen casts her vote, in Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

The party expelled him in 2015 over anti-Semitic remarks questioning the Holocaust, but he kept the honorary position.

Sunday’s vote is a crushing blow for the 89-year-old Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972 and was the surprise runner-up in the 2002 French presidential election.

In this photo taken on January 27, 2016 in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris France’s far-right Front National (FN) party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen poses for a photograph. (AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET)

Father and daughter Le Pen have waged a bitter power struggle since he named her to succeed him in 2011. The elder Le Pen has been convicted multiple times for racism and anti-Semitism, and his positions complicated his daughter’s efforts to clean up the party’s image and expand its base into disillusioned mainstream French voters.

Abolishing the honorary position is an effort to bypass court rulings that he should be able to maintain his status as honorary party president for life.

The congress in Lille is aimed at remaking its image after Marine Le Pen made it to last year’s French presidential runoff, riding a global populist wave — but suffered crushing defeat to independent, pro-globalization Emmanuel Macron.

Marine Le Pen even wants to change the name of the National Front.

The new moniker, which has yet to be released, must be approved by members during a mail-in vote. The party is expected to keep the word “national” in its new name. “Rassemblement national” (national union) has been mooted as an option.

Jean-Marie Le Pen has called the idea a betrayal.

AFP contributed to this report.

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