France's National Front picks Marine Le Pen as new head

Marine Le Pen speaks at a FN meeting (Dec 2010) Ms Le Pen looks set to be a genuine contender in the 2012 presidential elections

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France's far-right National Front has named Marine Le Pen as its new leader at a party conference.

She is succeeding her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the FN in 1972.

On Saturday party sources reported that she had secured two-thirds of votes against rival Bruno Gollnisch in a recent referendum of members.

The anti-immigrant FN has been shunned by France's main parties, but Ms Le Pen has said she wants to break with the party's xenophobic image.

In a combative farewell speech on Saturday Mr Le Pen, 82, insisted that "unceasing immigration" posed a threat to France.

"All my comments were distorted from their true meaning... because I refused to submit to the dictatorship of the thought police," he told cheering supporters at the conference in the central city of Tours.

He added that it was up to FN members to ensure the party's future success under a new leader.

Analysis

Marine Le Pen is the latest in a younger generation of far-right leaders in Europe seeking to shake off the old fascist legacy with a softer message.

Some believe Marine, a pro-abortion, pro-women's rights, twice-divorced mother of three, is more dangerous to the unpopular President Sarkozy than her father.

And in this economic gloom that prevails in France she is in the perfect climate to steal political ground.

Polls suggest her party has already eroded the president's support. A survey this week suggested 32% of supporters of Mr Sarkozy's UMP are sympathetic to the FN's ideas - a 10% jump in one year.

While most French people are still deeply opposed to what Marine Le Pen stands for, her party is still gaining momentum.

"I entrust you with the destiny of our movement... its unity, its pugnacity," he said.

French TV footage showed Marine Le Pen, 42, crying as she applauded her father.

Although Mr Le Pen's five presidential bids have failed, the FN has steadily grown under his leadership.

In recent elections the party has been able to garner about 15% of the vote.

In 2002 he came a shock second in the first round of presidential elections, but lost the second round to then-incumbent Jacques Chirac.

A recent poll suggested the party could come third in presidential elections to be held in 2012.

The French lobby group SOS Racisme said Ms Le Pen's election at the head of the National Front would not change the nature of the party, and that its "hate speech" would continue.

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