Top Le Pen aide quits amid French far-right infighting

Clare BYRNE
Florian Philippot was an architect of the National Front's pledge to pull France from the euro single currency

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen's right-hand man stormed out of the party on Thursday as simmering tensions over the National Front's election defeats this year burst into the open.

Florian Philippot, architect of the National Front's pledge to quit the euro and detoxify its brand, announced his departure after Le Pen bowed to pressure to push him towards the exit.

"Listen, I don't like being ridiculed, I've never liked having nothing to do, so sure, I'm quitting the National Front," the 35-year-old, who had been one of the party's two vice presidents since 2012, told France 2 television.

Like other big parties, the National Front (FN) was thrust into soul-searching after May's battle for the presidency and parliamentary elections in June brought centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron and his Republic On the Move (LREM) party to power.

Philippot said the debate within the FN about a shift away from his focus on economic nationalism back to its traditional priorities of immigration and French identity were "a terrible backward slide".

"I saw how things were developing negatively these past weeks, that maybe I wouldn't have a place in the project," he said.

Le Pen, who has attempted to bridge the divide between anti-immigration hardliners and other nationalists, said she was "not overjoyed about Florian leaving" but assured: "The Front will get over it, no problem."

She accused Philippot of "playing the victim" and said his accusations of a return to the extremism of the party's beginnings under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, "made absolutely no sense" and were "partly defamatory".

Le Pen's partner Louis Aliot, an MP from southwest France, called Philippot "vain and arrogant" on Twitter.

Le Pen also sought to stamp out the speculation swirling about her future since her second failed presidential bid.

"I am the strongest and best placed" to represent the party in the next presidential election in 2022, she insisted Thursday.

The 49-year-old trained lawyer floundered badly in the final election debate with Macron in May, going on to win just 33.9 percent of the vote in an election that had been seen as a bellwether of support for populists in Europe.

The party also fared badly in June elections to the National Assembly, taking just eight seats out of 577.

One of the main beneficiaries of the disarray in the National Front could be far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has emerged as the most high-profile opposition figure to Macron.

"It's their problem, but it's perfect," Melenchon told RTL radio.

- Charting his own path -

The media-savvy Philippot, a former senior civil servant who was outed as gay by a gossip magazine, had been on a collision course with Le Pen since the polls.

Many rivals in the party blamed him for concocting a proposal to scrap the euro and bring back the franc -- despite polls showing French voters running scared from the plan.

FN hardliners have seized on Le Pen's defeat to try to refocus the party on its stock themes of immigration and security -- issues that took a back seat to Europe and Islam while Philippot had Le Pen's ear.

Seeing his influence in the party wane, Philippot began to chart his own path, creating his own Patriots association in May.

Accusing him of a conflict of interest, Le Pen on Wednesday stripped him of his responsibility for strategy and communication, leaving him without a specific brief.

Philippot's departure is expected to accelerate a battle for ideological control of the FN.

Economist Philippe Murer, another Le Pen advisor, also announced his resignation Thursday, saying hardliners were now calling the shots.

"The FN will talk mostly about mass immigration, a real problem for France, but it will not propose a real programme to defend the middle and lower classes," he wrote on Twitter.

Macron's lightning rise to power upended France's political landscape, leaving traditional parties in disarray.

The Socialist Party and the centre-right Republicans -- both of which lost voters and politicians to Macron -- are also struggling to regroup.